My two weeks oiling the legal machine
This is the best drawing I did during my jury service – and I did a lot.
After years of blissful inaction on the electoral roll, the cogs of our nation dragged me out of my day-to-day slog and decided to make use of me, via Her Majesty's Court Service.
The average jury service is meant to last two weeks; in those two weeks they will try and get as much out of you as possible, so one short trial doesn't mean you leave early, it means you do another three short trials until you have fulfilled your duty. There are some things about jury service that are exactly as you would expect, and some that come as a big shock. I can't tell you about the cases I sat on – because I would be in trouble if i did, and one thing I want to abstemiously avoid, now more than ever, is having to be in court again. But below I will give you a rundown of what you can expect if you are ever called up.
THE TYPICAL CROSS-SECTION OF SOCIETY
If you are in any way normal you will have spent a large portion of your life trying to avoid most people. The chances of you enjoying the company of the "general public" is slim. That's why people invent gentlemen's clubs, women's hour, kid's matinées and pool halls. So what happens when you are suddenly thrown headlong into what is actually a genuine cross-section of London's population? Well, as you might expect, you end up with every cliche and stereotype you can imagine:
-The disgruntled, bullish (yet amusing), hard man turned pensioner who has "been in plenty of scraps", and vocally disagrees with most things people say.
-The strikingly attractive recently nationalised European 30-year-old who has become so liberal that she is now some sort of terrifying sex fascist who can't wait to kick builders in the balls for offering to help with her shopping bags.
-The guy who has done jury service before and therefore thinks he is the Andy McNab of civic duty. He will probably suggest that "if we each take it in turn, that tends to work best", in the sort of condescending tone that a special needs teacher might use to suggest that one of his charges stops chewing the plastic crimping scissors.
-Closely related to him is the recently retired guy who has been blue-balled with anticipation of jury service, and then is outraged that his extremely valuable retired time is being spent on cases that he deems below him, i.e. anything less than a triple murder or beheading.
-Then you have kind school teachers who think the kids should be given a bit more of a chance, and don't have to be told what a "bop" is or what "blood" means, when used to address someone.
-The incredibly relaxed Jamaican guy who calms everyone down when they are getting a bit frayed and laughs at everything.
-A small, immaculately presented Asian man of about 58 who speaks almost no English and just nods, smiles, and goes with the majority.
-Someone who has some extremely loose association with law enforcement – they possibly fitted double glazing at Tooting Police Station – and therefore talk about the nature of policing in the UK like they were Brian Paddick's long term lover.
-The slightly dippy but attractive young students who look like they are in Skins and sit there looking pretty and wondering what M&S microwave meal they will have for tea.
-Finally you will have a twat like me who thinks they are the only one there who doesn't want to be on Jury Service and spends his whole time doing stupid drawings and reading books to look clever and detached.
In fact, we even had some oik who insisted on listening to his shitty reggaeton on his mobile in the jury area and was quickly dragged out for being in contempt of court, or something like that. You get the lot on jury service.
But the really amazing thing about jury service is that in a room, with the knowledge that any major misbehaviour will result in a fine or custodial sentence, even the most disparate people seem to be able to talk civilly and come to a decision on a matter of great importance – like ruining someone's life.
When you watch ITV criminal dramas or things like A Few Good Men, you might think that actors playing lawyers ham it up a bit. They don't. Lawyers are every bit as over egged as Tom Cruise would have you believe. The prosecutors just say, "Is it not the case that you DID steal 20 Kinder Eggs on the 15th of May?" again and again, until the defendant gets annoyed and changes their story. While the defence lawyers wait until the end of the trial to remind you that "the defendant need not prove their innocence, but you must be SURE, not just think it LIKELY, that they are guilty", so you get cold feet. They drink a lot of water, and somewhat predictably dwell on semantics.
Crown court judges might, in my limited experience, be the best people in the world. They are the most erudite, lucid and charming people I have ever seen. They are kindly yet firm, and slightly terrifying. I could imagine every one of them teaching a young boy how to spin bowl then going to their club to have a few drinks and discuss the finer points of Indo-European mythology and its influence on Homer. Imagine Edward Fox in Wild Geese II, in a wig.
If you are unlucky enough to be trying someone who might not be a totally sub-human waste of space, they probably have people who love them. If those people love them enough, they come to court to watch the trial. And if they really care, they spend a good share of their time in court looking at the jury with puppy-dog eyes, imploring with their silent watery little peepers that you don't send their beloved off to get knifed in jail.
Everything in court takes an eternity. I am talking as someone who dodged a five-month case, so obviously it could have been worse, but even two weeks feels like a long haul. You are held in a waiting pen with about 100 other jurors. The jury area is almost exactly like a doctor's waiting room, but about twelve times the size and with a worse selection of magazines. It also has a school canteen tacked onto the side of it. You sit there and if anyone is late – a juror, a defendant, a lawyer, judge, witness or clerk – then the trial is on hold. Whenever a lawyer wants to talk about a "point of law" with the judge, the jury are sent out to wait some more. The whole process becomes an endless series of traipses through off-white sterile hallways punctuated with flutters of inane chit-chat and bad food. On the upside, I re-read two John Buchan novels.