Today, you have either to be sent to prison to be stripped of your civil liberties in such a comprehensive fashion, or be called upon to consider sending someone else to one.
Jury duty is the last relic of peacetime conscription – the only remaining civic service to be mandatory and punishable by prison for noncompliance. That in itself makes it archaic.
But it’s not until you raise your right hand, and swear to give a true verdict according to the evidence, that you realise how colossally cumbersome and counterproductive it also is.
This was true before the pandemic when the failure of the courts system to keep up with its clients had produced a backlog of 350,000 cases – and it’s even truer now, as the total climbs towards half a million.
The injustice is manifested not only in the lives of those who must wait months or even years to have their fate decided, but also among the jurors whose time is being squandered.
At a point when people are struggling back to work, or being denied the chance to do so because they have been “pinged” by a scattershot NHS app and made to self-isolate, it cannot be right to continue to prioritise jury service over practically every other walk of life.
I suggested to Behrens Junior on Monday that he try telling this to the officials who had just summonsed him. He was in a new job and the prospect of being absent for a fortnight was not going to play well. But the law was deaf to real life, he soon learned.
Yet, once in the court building, there was nothing for him to do. No oath to swear; no case to try. He kicked his heels for a day, waiting for the ancient judicial machinery to lurch into action. Meanwhile, his small firm was losing money as work went undone – as were the employers of his fellow jurors, no doubt.
It was a farrago that raises wider questions about the whole system of presuming that guilt or innocence can be determined only by 12 people with no direct knowledge of the facts and probably very little interest in them.
The theory is that a jury of peers is more likely to be grounded in reality than an aged judge who thinks Elon Musk is a perfume by Chanel. The reality, though, is a charade of simplifying the evidence to a point where the jurors can understand it. It is a costly waste of everyone’s time.
The system has hardly changed since Judge Jeffreys stalked the Bloody Assizes; it takes no account of modern life, nor even of the scientific evidence on which many cases now hinge. DNA can be judged in binary terms; it shouldn’t need hours of nuanced discussion in an oak panelled room.
It’s not a new dilemma. Tony Hancock was sending up juries back in the 1950s, when we still had national service. “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”
Nor are juries universal. In much of Asia, they are considered too open to bias to be of any use, and in France, they are sworn in for only the most serious cases. Even the US, whose legal system is based on ours, is turning to the system of plea bargains to avoid the need to drag people off the streets .
Here, following the Ministry of Justice’s admission in April that nearly 9,500 cases had been left outstanding for more than a year, there has been talk of commandeering buildings as well as people to increase the throughput. The old Cloth Hall Court in Leeds, where the textile trade once went about its business, is likely to become one of several “Nightingale Courts” – the judicial equivalent of a pop-up pub at a summer carnival.
But it’s a sticking plaster on a wound that needs major surgery. The rest of society has adapted to modern and efficient ways of working, and the legal system will itself be on trial if it does not follow suit. The courts are there to serve society, not vice versa – and in persisting with Dickensian indulgences they are guilty of putting their own interests ahead of ours.
The current practice of near-national service is not the answer. You’d have to call up every man and woman over 18 to clear the legal backlog we now face – and not since Harold Macmillan’s day has anyone dared suggesting that.
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