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1 August 2011updated 18 Jan 2012 5:27am

Why jury service needs an overhaul

The current system is wasteful, inefficient, and in need of reform.

By Ed Robson

Imagine that you are a builder and have been given two weeks work on a site. When you report for work, you are shown to a waiting room with 49 other construction workers. Over the course of the next fortnight, you only actually work for 20 hours in total. The rest of the time, you either sat in the waiting room or were sent home for the day. Regardless of whether you worked or not, you were paid for your time by the construction company. This, in essence, is how our jury system works. I have just completed my second stint of jury service in 14 years. For the first stint, I was required to do absolutely nothing. I was marginally better utilised during the second stint, sitting on one trial. I estimate that I spent three hours in the courtroom in total.

Here’s how the process works. The vast majority of adults may be selected for jury service. Only certain groups may be excluded, such as police officers (for obvious reasons). Having been selected, you dutifully turn up at your local courthouse along with around 50 other people. Groups of 15 people are then randomly selected from the 50 to sit as a jury in any trial taking place that day. 15 are initially selected rather than 12 to allow potential jurors to drop out if they become aware that they know anyone connected with the trial.

On day one of my recent stint, we were informed at 11am that only one trial had been scheduled that day; as a result, 35 of us were “released” and instructed to return the next day. Because of the way the system works (people are paid for half days or whole days by the court) we would all be paid a half-day allowance by the court, for sitting around for an hour and a half. If everyone claimed the full allowance, that amounts to more than £1,100 paid out for a zero return in respect of productivity. Whilst this is not a huge sum, multiply the figure to include courtrooms throughout the country and you begin to see why the amount spent on the jury system is often brought into question.

It should be stressed that there are some genuine reasons to keep jurors sitting around – for example, if a defendant changes their plea from “not guilty” to “guilty” at the last minute, thus negating the need for a trial.

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However, delays are also caused by judges “dealing with other matters”. Common sense would surely indicate that trials and “other matters” should be scheduled separately. Of course, this highlights another problem within the legal system. The authority of judges is not questioned and so it is seen as perfectly reasonable that a room full of jurors are kept waiting at their convenience. Introducing an independent element into the system — say, a court manager with the power to organise binding schedules — would be one way of improving efficiency. It should even be possible to reduce the number of occasions where a “guilty” plea is entered on the day of the trial by making it compulsory for a plea to be reconfirmed a week before the trial date. Overall, though, my sense is that what maintains this inefficiency is simply organisational inertia.

What this adds up to is an enormous waste of public money and people’s time. The system can potentially lose people money as well. Jurors are paid approximately £65 a day. If you work for an employer who is not prepared to pay you anything during your absence, and you earn more than £65 a day, you will be out of pocket. For these individuals, the time wasted in waiting rooms must be doubly galling. Then there is the issue of people’s suitability for the role of juror. I took a straw poll of a dozen people who were called for jury service. Of these 12, only four said they were actually looking forward to sitting on a jury; the other eight all expressed reservations about being responsible for another person’s liberty. Whilst I would never claim that such a statistic is representative of the system as a whole, it does provide a telling snapshot of the reservations a lot of people have.

There are many faults with our current legal system — the obscene hourly rates being levied by certain groups of lawyers, for example. The immense waste of money currently spent on the jury system is another. Whilst I wholeheartedly endorse the principle of trial by jury within our justice system, I believe that a review of the current system is well overdue. The very way that the system is organised lends itself to wasteful practices. What happens is that 50 jurors are called to court every fortnight. Once they are in place, it is then decided if a trial will take place, requiring the presence of 12 jurors. Imagine now that the system has to be set up a different way — that jurors are selected from the group of 50 in advance and anyone not required is informed that they can attend their normal place of work. This would simply require a little additional administration time, to allow court staff to contact individuals in the most convenient way possible.

One possible alternative to the current system would be to actively seek out those members of the public who would be interested in sitting as a juror on a regular basis — say, a fortnight every year — and ensuring that they are paid their usual wage for doing so. Interested applicants should be interviewed and assessed against essential criteria, just as they would for any other responsible position. To my way of thinking, jurors would need to show an ability to concentrate, be analytical, process large amounts of conflicting information and demonstrate that they respect equality and diversity. In addition, courts should collate, and be assessed against, the number and type of trials they schedule, run and complete (and the time trials take).

One final suggestion is to review the number of jurors required to hear a trial. Again, organisational inertia and tradition appear to maintain the fiction that 12 people are required to reach a fair verdict. Why not ten, eight or even six? Employing a system where willing jurors were used regularly should result in juries that are more knowledgeable about legal processes and more confident in delivering verdicts, thereby reducing the need for such a high number of individuals. From a purely economic point of view, the benefits of reducing juror numbers by 16 to 50 per cent should be self-evident.

Ed Robson is a qualified social worker and lives in Hull.

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