14 January 2014

Jury Duty

"I've been at the sheriff, but no up here before," a low voice behind me said. The South Court of the High Court of Justiciary in Glasgow feels much taller inside than it is broad. The decoration is tasteful, if somewhat faux Georgian in mode: columns and palladian squareness, whiteness, wood, and pale blue.  

The witness box and the advocate's questioning post beside the jury have something of the pulpit about them, though I dare say they see little in the way of preaching.  A bedside digital clock winks out from the judge's bench. Behind him sits the tinny-looking mace, representing the court's royal sanction. Two lions snarl from the wall above him. If they only squint down into the well of the court, this vertical illusion of classical simplicity and order dissolves into jurisprudential clutter: abandoned wigs and splayed lever-arch files, paper piles and jiffy-bagged and labelled crown productions, cast off black robes and the gangling connective tissue of wires and plugs. 

Buzzing around this colossal wreck, our regulars. While the prospective jurors sit, bored and wan in the public gallery, barely daring to move a muscle, and speaking if they speak at all in hushed tones, the macer gossips with the clerk in his crooked white-bow tie. A blazered court official ducks in and out. The advocates saunter around, in and out of the courtroom, idly footering with their files or their wigs, cracking jokes and taking the occasional if discreet squint out across the pooled jurymen and women. 

(It's been a while since I last set foot in a common law court.  Let me just observe from this recent outing: the practice of having advocates and judges wear wigs is patently absurd.  The two bare-headed solicitor-advocates representing the third accused in their gowns looked perfectly respectable. I'm sure their ability to pose pertinent questions was not impaired. Quite how dolling up as a cut-price Marie-Antoinette does anything for the dignity of proceedings is beyond me.  

Indeed, I'm told that primary impact of horsehair on scalp is that it encourages baldness. One wag on twitter suggested that I may not have made the ballot on account of my current, wigly, and rather silly twitter profile. It'd have been interesting to hear the immaculately peruked Lord Kinclaven explain why such headwear would offend the dignity of the court, while the bobbing horsehair of its well assists the proper administration of justice. But I digress.)

The lawyers are not loud in the traditional audible sense, but they comport themselves noisily - as assured folk do in their element. Whatever strange quietening discipline the court exerts on the jurors cited to attend, it doesn't hold for the circle of eight advocates. The whole morning has been characterised by its scrupulously polite assertions of quiet authority over the fifty or so folk, now nervously awaiting the ballot. Like many things we take for granted, jury service is a remarkable exercise in social power.  The simple authority of a letter commands our attendance here and now, and the majority comply.  

Many and most will never have set foot near the High Court before. Palpable nervousness and a hesitancy clings to the people approaching its threshold.  A few seemed to waver outside, like the foreign tourist repeatedly checking that he is on the right platform to catch the train to his destination, despite the fact that its name blazes clearly on the sign in the terminal above him. Like that tourist, many clutch their peach jury citation forms for grim death, like a sort of talisman, irrationally feart they are going to misplace the paper in their last few steps to the door, and feel the full force of the law. Throughout the morning, I am reminded again and again of the peculiar stupidity which seems to take over when you are abroad. It's nervousness, I think, havers born of uncertainty about how it is appropriate to behave and the inchoate fear you'll get it wrong, and slip into calamity.

Having been scanned, and stamped, and ordered from pillar to post, we pool in another tall-ceiling room, rather like a doctor's surgery, but without the convenience of out-of-date glossy magazines with advice on how to lose weight, decorate your home, or please your man. Despite tending by disposition towards earliness, the room is almost full by the time I arrive. The social temperature inside is remarkable chilly, as one might expect: fifty-odd strangers, in a strange place, hardly knowing how to behave. It is also strikingly tense and immobile. A few old hands project an attitude of bored assurance. A wee wifey obsessively turns through the Court's guide to jury duty. Others focus on a novel, or a newspaper. Nobody speaks. We wait, listless and clueless about what is really being transacted elsewhere in the building, or why. When the blazered official appears to hustle us into the court room, it comes as something of a relief. 

"Should we sit down?" a worried looking older lady whispers under her breath. "I guess so", I say, as the public gallery fills. We are met by the informal scene I describe above. The Canadian social theorist, Erving Goffman, used the metaphor of the theatre to help analyse social interactions, in particular the idea of fronstage and backstage behaviour. Curiously, as a prospective juror, you're afforded at least a limited insight into the backstage life of the court room which, with the appearance of the judge, is suddenly transformed into the main stage, in full public view.  Costumes are donned, the informality disappears, and the official roles of participants assert themselves.

The effect reminded me of the Citizens' Theatre's recent staging of Crime and Punishment (which I reviewed here). The curtain was already raised as the audience filed into the stalls. The actors struck no theatrical diorama. We do not first encounter them in character. Instead the ensemble limbered up against the gaunt, bare stage, checked their props, chatted - and at the appointed moment, became Raskolnikov, Marmeladova and so on.  The effect in the High Court yesterday felt similar. 

After a homily from the court clerk, who affably but ineffectively attempted to evaporate some of our anxiety, and the materialisation of the judge on the bench and the accused in the dock, to the ballot.  Where would fate's fickle finger point? Not, as you might have guessed from this blog, at me: nobody's fate lies, even slightly, in my hands.  The fifteen other souls having been empanelled by lot - the indictment against the accused is read - and the court adjourns briefly, to allow the jurors to divest themselves of their things backstage. Those of us which remained still could not leave. If it transpired that one of the selected jurors knew one of the accused or the significant witnesses in the indictment, one of us might still be snatched from obscurity to play our part in the process. In the event, nothing of this sort proved necessary and having been given the judicial nod, we were released.

All of this is done solicitously, of course. The judge and clerk thank us for our participation, and our patience in quietly enduring a process that takes the best part of two hours. But the underlying and explicit assumption of authority over you, to which you submit - you are not yet discharged, do not move - bears it own curious frisson. Inexplicitness marks many and perhaps most of the ways in which social power and discipline is exercised upon us most of the time. Rationally, you know that the judge isn't going to have you transported to Australia for a misdemeanour or a misunderstanding. But the prospective juror's proximity to this unfamiliar dread power, which assert that you are part of its system and unambiguously exercises its authority of govern your conduct, is a remarkable, straightening experience.

The Contempt of Court Act means that social researchers cannot legally do much in the way of jury research. Most people's experiences - evaporate - unrecorded.  But even for those who are not called upon to decide on the guilt or innocence of their peers, the experience of being cited and traipsing through the court processes is an original and strange and intimidating one - a brief but challenging moment of contact with our judicial institutions which, in ordinary life, few of us have cause to interact with.


  1. I've never been called for jury duty, I was however thrown out of Haddington sheriff court for talking.

    Because that is how I roll you know...

    I remember (while I was in the room) it reminded me of an operating theatre, for the players it it was all mundane and every day - yet - for the guests it was often a lot more important. The difference between the two was a bit jarring.

    1. You're lucky that the Sheriffs of today don't maintain stocks, pa_broon74! Well, at least not for public use. I pass no comment on judicial hobbies which take place within the parameters of the criminal law. Your second point is very well put. I've realised that the problematic interaction between ordinary people and legal regimes is the glue holding my academic interests in law and legal institutions together. It is a problematic and often challenging encounter - as yesterday perfectly banal morning at the operating theatre demonstrated.

  2. I did jury duty once. An interesting, but not wholly edifying experience. Of course, my lips are sealed ...

    1. This was my first citation. Sundry benefits of not turning practitioner...

  3. I've been to Chambers St more times than I can easily remember (either witness or prospective juror, of course).

    Alas I have never been chosen, nor testified. As a witness you wait hours and then the accused changes plea; you wish upon him a very happy first shower appointment in Saughton and get on with your life.

    Outside, the next batch awaits, fags and Special Brew in hand, baseball caps on head and sneers on their weasel like faces.

    Then they don their wigs ...

    1. Well, a gentleman needs refreshment between briefs...

  4. Unfortunately, not all accused are fag, special brew, baseball cap and sneer like characters. Scotland's criminal justice system is incompatible with the ECHR.

  5. Having led a charmed life and managed to avoid jury duty for many years, I was finally selected to attend last year. Like yourself I entered a room with 50 or so others, of whose backgrounds I know little, so I'll speak for myself. I work 12 hour shifts, 3 on, 3 off. Prior to attending I notified my employer, as they have to cover my shift while I go and sit in court. I am paid in full for my time at court. My employer also pays the guy to cover me, at an overtime rate of £25 an hour. So the cost for me to attend for one day is around £550. One day.

    Day One (Monday). Sat around. Not selected, but not released. Told to come back tomorrow.
    Day Two. Sat around, not selected, neither are we released. Told to come back on Thursday.
    Day Three (Wednesday). As my employer had to cover my shift I can stay at home while someone else does my work.
    Day Four. Sat around, not selected, not released. Contacted by my employer. One of our staff is sick. Can I work my day off tomorrow to cover them? Answer no.Bye-bye £300. No, I can't claim back potential lost earnings.
    Day Five. After much humming and hawing we are told that they did want us all to return for the next week, but have instead decided to release us. Thanks for nothing, and don't let the door hit your erse on the way oot.

    Five days wasted. A cost, to my employer of around £1600. A loss for me of £300. For many there were expenses which would go nowhere near covering lost earnings. I spoke recently to one chap, a self employed builder, who through having to attend jury duty lost out on contracts amounting to around £15,000. At a time when small businesses are struggling this could be the difference between surviving and closure.

    The cost to the economy of jury duty is simply staggering. Surely a pool of professional jurors, rotated at random across the judicial system, would provide a better system than this farce, as well as full or part time employment for many hundreds of people.. Often angry at being chosen, annoyed at their life being disrupted, with the only criteria being that you have a pulse, not an education, is this really the best we can do?