May 2, 2014 6:09 pm

Oh, the injustice of it all…

‘I felt less like a juror in a criminal trial than an Olympic ice-dancing judge’
Illustration by Lucas Varela of a jury©Lucas Varela

Perhaps it was an omen. Just days after I noticed that Twelve Angry Men was enjoying a new West End run, the jury summons thudded on to my doormat.This will be my second summons in just seven years, so they must like me. I was beginning to worry that they didn’t think I had done a good job last time. We banged a guy up like we were supposed to but we also acquitted someone else and I worried that they might have marked me down as indecisive.

In a way, the second summons is more flattering. First time round they are really just trying you out but this time they’ve gone for a proven track record. I can, for example, now spot someone who looks a bit guilty, which is important, as it seems to be the basic standard of proof required by the Crown Prosecution Service.

I trust that experience will be put to good use. My skill set would surely be wasted on another run-of-the-mill robbery. I’m also rather excited because the CPS seems to be going after a lot more celebrities, so there’s the added prospect that we might get to bang up a soap star.

But for all the pleasure at my recall, it is an honour I could do without. I was quite excited at my first jury summons. I had reported on many trials in my career but was intrigued to see things from the jury’s view. I arrived therefore rather enthusiastic and full of faith in the system. Two weeks later I left more jaundiced, ground down by the pointless expense, the careless time-wasting, the procedural silliness and the overwhelming sense of being required to reach a decision with only partial information.

By the end, it was like being a deaf uncle at a dinner party, aware that there was an important conversation going on at the other end of the table of which only snippets could be heard. We were not so much Twelve Angry Men as Twelve Perplexed People (the lesser-known sequel in which Henry Fonda sits there saying, “Why do you think they didn’t tell us that?”).

I felt less like a juror in a criminal trial than an Olympic ice-dancing judge, asked to score the jumps and turns of the barristers (9.5 for artistic impression but the cross-examination let him down). Rather than tell us why relevant information or witnesses were being denied us, presumably for fear that facts might prejudice the case, the court preferred us to reach a view in ignorance. By the end, it did not seem to be an exercise in seeking the truth. And what, in any case, is a reasonable doubt? Obviously my doubts are reasonable; yours, on the other hand, may be the product of an inferior mind.

Perhaps it might have been different if the crimes were very serious or violent but dedication can diminish in the face of legal game-playing and carelessness of the system. My first case, a theft of about £100 from a community centre, was prosecuted with somnambulistic indifference. The defendant was acquitted. It must have cost the taxpayer far more than the amount stolen.

The second was delayed because one of the barristers was juggling two cases. His work was accommodated at the expense of ours. I would love to tell you more about the ludicrous panto but sadly – and unsurprisingly – the law will not permit me to do so. You are not allowed to divulge the secrets of the jury room. It is a contempt of court, even if one does hold court proceedings in contempt.

It is easy to criticise juries but this is not intended as an assault on the jury system itself. For all its faults, it offers a bulwark against injustice. The blame actually lies with a legal system so ponderous, self-indulgent and resistant to change that an initially diligent dozen who arrive with enthusiasm are soon keen to get back to work.

Jurors are not film stars but they should not be treated as mere extras either. It seems a shame that what might be their most significant civic duty may leave many not filled with satisfaction but disillusioned, feeling like an ill-informed spectator at an arcane, private game where everyone’s time is precious but theirs.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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