Thursday, April 28, 2005

On Jury Service – Thoughts from Day One

Performing your civic duty requires great patience, because it might just mean sitting for hours on dust-speckled, 80s office furniture, suffocating on the silence broken only by the sound of newspapers turning, people slurping coffee, people snoring. The monotony is broken only by the frequent Tannoy announcements calling up the lucky ones selected by random to actually make up a jury. A novel idea, in a court of law.

I shouldn’t laugh, but it is amusing to hear the fifty-something jury officer announcing the names. When she started doing this job I expect everyone was called Brown, Smith, Jones and Bennett. But in 21st century inner London, every other name is barely pronounceable. It sounds like the roll call on a United Nations coach trip. Nor is it something she seems to get more skilled at as the day progresses, either.

After three hours of this I am finally called up in a group of fifteen and we are escorted to court 10 by a chirpy usher. No idea how anyone can stay cheerful here. He explains the oath, or, for those of us with no religious convictions, the affirmation, and we are moved into the court itself. Not sure why, but I wasn’t expecting there to be anybody inside, but there they all were: the judge, the clerks, the barristers, the defendant, people in the gallery. The atmosphere is purposefully, officially, stifling. Quiet and tense. It instils an immediate and arresting seriousness in you that is difficult to explain. Perhaps it’s only ever having seen this sort of thing on TV before, but the reality is quite intimidating. For a second I thought I was on trial. This is undoubtedly the effect they are after: We are the state! We are authority! It works.

Funny old country, the UK. Judges wear wigs and colourful gowns. Anywhere else they would face mirth and ridicule, but here it is required. I toy with the idea of wearing a wig myself on my second day. Perhaps a huge beehive number, or one of those “slaphead” ones that make you look bald. When in Rome, and all that.

From a group of 15, the 12 jury members are again selected by random. Defying all odds, and to my enormous relief, I’m one of the three not chosen. We watch all twelve individuals swear in, only one of which takes the affirmation. I consider it a duty to point out the ridiculous, and this is a great example. The eleven members who swear on the Bible hold the good book in their hands while they do so. OK. But the chap who chooses the lengthy, non-faith affirmation is told to hold his right hand up as he does so, showing his palm. Why? What does this achieve? Are his words rendered meaningless without this hand signal? What if he didn’t have any arms? Would he be considered an unreliable citizen? Perhaps he would have to lift up his right leg instead, or perhaps hop on the spot. Madness, these little symbolistic rituals that prop up our legal and judicial processes.

I’m making light of it all now, but I assure you this is only funny in retrospect. When you’re in that court, you feel guilty, even when you’re only on the jury. Borrowing a gulag tactic, there is no natural light in the court – only the unforgiving glare of institutional strip lighting, lest anyone be reminded that there is other life outside of that court room.

Anyway, the defendant can object to any of the twelve selected jurors for any reason before they are sworn in. So I make a mental note to dress as Hitler tomorrow and see what happens. . . .

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