The Trials of a Jury


At the beginning of this academic year I found myself in a situation where, after long and gruelling days of fierce concentration, I was sending emails to students and colleagues late into the night. Casual lecturers had to be engaged for an indeterminate period, guest lecturers invited, and course outlines rearranged to suit new circumstances. Postgraduate students needed to be given alternate supervisors (in one case an extension on a thesis which would otherwise be nearing completion) and international students had to be placated.

One of my colleagues volunteered to take on some administrative tasks I will recompense her by taking on additional marking at the end of session. My welcome to new students was limited to a few rushed words (after a day when I had heard some particularly unpleasant details on the growth of maggots in rotting human flesh).

And on top of all this, I lost eight days of previously approved annual leave. Theoretically, lost leave can be reclaimed but the realities of university life do not go well with such theories.

The reason for this chaotic start to the year was that I was selected for jury service.

The 11 other jurors on the trial also had minor or major inconveniences and, of course, all around the country, other jurors or potential jurors face similar disruptions. This is part of the price we pay for a fair system of justice and after seeing justice in action, I would argue that it is a fair price.

The problems arise not from the jury system, as such, but with the quality of its administration, the physical conditions of life in the jury room, and the lack of recompense for the financial damage inflicted on jurors and their employers. This is hardly news. One of the books that kept me sane for the last six weeks of the trial was Malcolm Knox’s Secrets of the Jury Room (Random House, 2005). His account is of a jury trial in 2001, but nothing much has changed.

Jury service has a differing impact on every person selected. Some find it an intellectually challenging experience as they are given fresh insights into the working of the judicial system. For those who are retired, the modest allowance is a handy supplement to their pension or superannuation but juries are made up of more than retirees.

In NSW, at least, the Sheriff’s Office no longer accepts as legitimate reasons fpr avoiding jury duty damage to income or damage to colleagues or students. Jurors who are independent contractors inevitably suffer both loss of income and loss of momentum to gain future income.

The law can pontificate all it likes on the requirement for employers to fairly treat their staff who serve on juries, but we now live in the brave new world of ‘bodies-for-hire,’ and the 35-hour-a-week job died with the advent of WorkChoices. Some employers do allow employees to continue on full pay during jury duty, but absent staff need to be replaced so further costs are incurred. The Sheriff’s Office takes none of this into account. Even teachers with HSC classes are ordered to abandon their students for jury service.

I’d always assumed that the lawyers would know jurors’ names, but in NSW jurors are totally anonymous, so lawyers can only guess at the nature of the people they must convince to prove their case. Once the Indictment is read, names drawn by lot and the jury is sworn, 12 puzzled people who have never met before find that they are bound together in a confined space until a satisfactory conclusion is reached.

In addition to the negative financial impact, the way jurors are treated within the system hardly encourages willing participation.

The court where I sat for all those weeks has been restored to an elegant interpretation of its 19th century splendour, but the jury box is so cramped that those with long legs have a hard time and the writing support on the chairs is only for right-handers. There is no disabled access for jurors either in the court, or more importantly, outside. The stairs leading to the jury room are steep and narrow, and the room itself is smaller than my living room. Juries spend most of their time in this artificially lit room, with no windows and no space to stretch.

Mobile phones were impounded as we entered a cone of silence. Malcolm Knox’s jury was taken on a daily walk we had one brief walk during the entire trial. It is quite common for juries to sit locked in jury rooms for days on end, waiting in the wings while legal argument takes centre stage. Those who administer the courts seem to forget that this is not our world. The witnesses come before juries like players on a stage, but only to speak part of the narrative. Jurors are a bit like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ; they are kept in ignorance of the structure of the play.

The only group of jurors regularly given any freedom were smokers who were taken outside for a quick puff. Serious coffee drinkers (like me) needed to ingest the day’s supply in a neighbouring café in the morning and then rush to the jury room, averting our gaze, like medieval nuns, so that we would not meet the eyes of the witnesses or their family or friends, who gathered around the court precinct.

That was fine for the morning, but afternoons were grim. With the exception of a plate of fresh fruit, which we seized on every day, the food supplied to juries is best described as greasy stodge. Vegetarians are given greasy vegetarian stodge. Jurors can bring their own food, but as sitting on a jury requires exhausting active listening and many jurors face heavy demands once they go home, there is little time for food preparation.

Because of our sudden entry into this strange and dislocated world, especially because of financial pressures on some jurors, there was a time early in the trial when relations became fraught. Yet, in a bit more than a month, the jury would be asked questions on whether a person was guilty or not of a serious crime, and everyone would have to agree on the answer.

Resolution came from those of us who understood that this disparate group needed to become a community or else we would never be able to agree. So jurors facing difficult problems with employers and landlords and life were given support and good advice by their fellows. One juror brought in a plunger and ground coffee to solve the worst of the coffee problem. Others bought quality cakes and cheese to be shared at morning tea-time, while one juror worked off the tensions of the day by making chocolate brownies by night, and she was indeed a great cook. One day the mother of the youngest juror baked a brilliant, but lethally creamy cake. It was much appreciated.

There were hours of boredom too. But a solution was found when we redeployed the DVD player and plasma screen that was kept in the jury room for playing evidence. My son had given me The Chaser’s War on Everything for Christmas and their particular brand of absurdity restored good humour to all. The Chaser was followed by Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Ripping Yarns. Comedy and cake the solution to most of life’s problems.

The trial had its own comedic moments but they were more ‘comedies of errors’ than satirical humour. When the jury retired to consider its verdict some of the evidence we had to look at was a CD (rather than a DVD) of video surveillance, a fairly common occurrence these days. But we were given no means to play it, so more hours were wasted waiting for a laptop. When the computer finally arrived, it required the combined IT skills of the jury, which fortunately were greater than those of the court officials, to load the CD onto the archaic machine.

I do appreciate that computers used in such circumstances need to have their hard disk erased and software re-installed between trials, but bearing in mind the total cost of a trial it does seem a false economy not to keep a store of ‘court ready’ computers on standby.

Being on a jury in a major criminal trial is an
intense experience. The Sheriff’s Office has a counselling service for traumatised jurors, but in most cases a debrief with lawyers would be more useful and not just for jurors. From conversations with friends within the legal profession, I understand they would really like to know more about juries and how they work.

Jurors are not allowed to discuss the processes that lead to a verdict. But jury duty is a secret society few ask to join. It would help both the judges who have to give directions, legal counsel, and future jurors for some light to be shed on the trials of a jury.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.