The idea of jury duty has lost its appeal

I’VE always wanted to be on a jury. And as I popped my ticket in the hat at Jury Play – an immersive theatre production being staged in Edinburgh – I crossed my fingers. But alas, it wasn’t to be.

By the end, just two hours and 20 minutes later, I had come to realise I should be more careful what I wish for.

Certainly no-one I’ve spoken to about their jury service has recommended the experience, and this Grid Iron/Traverse co-production gives plenty of clues as to why. Without wishing to reveal any spoilers, I was surprised by how much the volunteers – our set of mock jurors – had to do, and how exposed they were.

Sure, they had ringside seats for the murder trial being acted out before us, but we had our eyes on them too. They had responsibilities, while the rest of us could relax. And when the judge began to speak on the first of a gruelling 50-odd days of evidence, it was nothing like The Good Wife, or Silk, or Law and Order. It was, by design, exceedingly dull … until we started to hear the jurors’ internal monologues.

Jury Play
Jury Duty by Grid Iron Theatre Company and Traverse Theatre Company

The production is the result of a collaboration between playwright Ben Harrison and academic Jenny Scott, whose PhD examined barriers to juror participation. What it highlights are not physical barriers to accessing the courtroom, but the many ways in which ordinary jurors might struggle with the enormous responsibility placed on their shoulders. The expectation that they will fully understand proceedings, or have the confidence to speak up when they are confused. The idea that they will somehow be willing and able to unplug themselves from their normal lives – and from much of the internet – for an indeterminate length of time.

By the time the interval arrived, I was not only questioning whether I would emerge from any real-life jury duty confident that I’d made the right decision, but also whether I would want to be judged by a jury of my peers, should I have the misfortune to be charged with a crime. If my peers are anything like me, they struggle to fully concentrate on someone talking uninterrupted for more than 90 minutes or so – even if it’s an interesting topic. They aren’t used to sitting in silence, on hard chairs, without snacks or smartphones. They have busy lives and competing demands. They have prejudices.

Scott’s PhD thesis certainly won’t be the last word on any of these matters. It was announced last month that a team from the universities of Glasgow and Warwick, working alongside Ipos Mori, will carry out research into jury decision-making in Scotland over the next two years. This will involve members of the public sitting as mock juries with the aim of informing decision-making about future reforms of the justice system, including the distinctly Scottish option of a “not proven” verdict.

A mock jury is just that – it’s artificial, and unlike in the real world an accused person’s future will not hinge on the outcome

Of course, a mock jury is just that – it’s artificial, and unlike in the real world an accused person’s future will not hinge on the outcome. Unlike with real jury duty, no-one can be compelled to take part in the research, so from the outset the make-up of these juries will differ from those who sit in real courts. The length of the mock trials will presumably have to be decided and disclosed to the jurors in advance – unlike in a real trial, when the duration of the proceedings can only be estimated.

When the date was set for the property fraud trial of Edwin and Lorraine McLaren in 2015, jurors were told it would last around six months. In the end it dragged on for 20, during which time the jury lost three of its 15 original members. There was no subs bench from which replacements could be picked, so then there were 12 – the minimum number required for the trial to continue.

In August the BBC reached out to those 12 jurors and offered them the chance to talk about their experiences. Four came forward. They were prohibited from discussing their deliberations, but permitted to shed light on the practical, psychological and emotional challenges they had faced both during and since the trial. They told of struggles with readjusting to their normal lives, of trying to slot back into their jobs and social circles. The feature makes for a pretty harrowing read – and this was a trial for non-violent offences. What they described wasn’t merely a prolonged inconvenience, but a life-changing ordeal. Yes, one young woman was inspired to give up her job in a fast-food restaurant and go to college, but others lacked such options due to their age, caring responsibilities and the fact that they had become so accustomed to sitting in silence for days on end.

So is all this collateral damage a price worth paying to maintain the jury system? What evidence of harm would tip the balance and persuade legislators that wholesale rather than piecemeal reform is required? It’s one thing to gather evidence and identify problems, but quite another to decide what action should be taken to resolve them.

One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t want to be the one making these decisions. And from now on I’ll be crossing my fingers in the hope I don’t get picked.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

Published by Shona Craven

Writer, editor, talking head

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