Jury duty during covid – my experience at the Royal Courts of Justice
What it was like doing jury service at the nightingale courts?
At the end of 2020, I received that letter that people are either looking forward to or dreading. Jury summons.
When you tell people you’ve received a jury summons you tend to get one of two responses: Either a sigh of jealousy from those who have never been called but long to do their civic duty. Or a sigh of commiseration from those who have either done it, or found a way to put it off.
Like most things right now, the pandemic complicates every aspect of our lives. The courts seem to be no different. Over the past year I’ve heard conflicting accounts from friends and colleagues about how the courts have been surviving. In fact I took an in depth look at what was happening in the construction courts in this webinar with the CIOB.
World of Crime?
Despite working in and around the legal sector for many years, I know very little about the criminal courts. At the very least, I hoped that after two weeks of jury service that might change. After some initial confusion, I received an email to say my two weeks would be served at the Royal Courts of Justice. Slightly confusing as this wasn’t somewhere I knew that jury trials took place.
You can’t help but be impressed when you enter the RCJ. I’ve been inside on a couple of occasions and the grand Victorian architecture always manages to take my breath away. If you have never been inside and find yourself in the area with some free time, do pay it a visit. Under normal circumstances anyone can walk in and take a look around. Mr Paul Carver even does some brilliant tours.
Then jury service began. We were taken to what in the pre-COVID world would have been the canteen. Each assigned a chair number and told to take a seat. Each chair had clear Perspex screens separating us from the people in front, behind and to either side of us.
It turns out my knowledge of the RCJ was correct, it does not usually hold jury trials, save for the occasional case of libel. We were actually sitting in one of the government’s Nightingale Courts. Courts specially set up to deal with the backlog of cases caused by the pandemic. However, the cases being heard in this court went back all the way to 2017. It seems strange that the backlog for COVID stretches back so far – could there perhaps be some broader issue with our criminal justice system that has led to hearings being four years behind schedule?
Gothic Revival vs Siberian Winds
Much of the two weeks were spent sitting around with not much happening. Yet somehow it still felt very chaotic. The court ushers were helpful and gave us as much information as they had, but like us they were left in this disused canteen with no phone or laptop for much of the time, waiting for someone to come down from one of the courts and let us know what was happening. And it was freezing. George Street’s Gothic revival architecture may be beautiful, but it was not designed for comfort. We sat there shivering for much of the time, unable to get a hot drink unless we traipsed out of the courts and to the Pret across the road.
Due to the pandemic, the courts try to keep the bare minimum people around at any time. So each evening you would receive a text if needed the next day. Each morning I would arrive at the allocated time and sit in the that cold canteen waiting. For the first few days it would get to around lunchtime and we would be sent home by the usher. Most days it was because the defendant on arrival at court had change their plea to guilty. Probably not surprising, in cases going back almost four years.
Finally, I was called to serve on a jury.
This was just a one day case. But after all the sitting around doing nothing for so long it all felt very exciting. The case, to me, seemed fairly straightforward. The theatrics of the courtroom were entertaining and it is always a delight to see barristers in action. By the end of the day the case was over, the jury had deliberated and the verdict handed down. Then back to nothing.
As the second week began I was told I was not needed in court yet. So I came back to work, trying to pick up the things I had missed on my week off. No text on Monday, and by Tuesday I had begun to think that was the end of my experience. Then the text appeared.
This time things seemed to be on track. I arrived and after a short while waiting around we were taken to be sworn in as jurors. I mentioned previously that my knowledge of the criminal courts was pretty non-existent.
This was one of the things I learnt: Most of us are familiar with the pledge witnesses give before cross-examination. It is a common trope in courtroom dramas in TV and film. What I didn’t know was that at the start of a trial the jury must each take an oath. One by one you stand up and swear to try and give a fair verdict.
This time the case was three days long. Because of what I do for a living, I was excited to see expert evidence was included in the case. Sadly, the case was straightforward enough that there was no need for the expert to be cross examined.
Once again the jury went into deliberations and decided on a verdict and then we were done. We were thanked for our time and sent on our way on Friday afternoon, glad we wouldn’t need to come back again the following Monday.
Overall, I was impressed with the professionalism of judges, ushers and court staff. You could tell they were trying their best under difficult circumstances to make us jurors as comfortable as possible. But the whole experience felt poorly managed and chaotic.
By now, we are far enough into the pandemic for systems to be in place. The initial communications were poor. It seemed that a COVID paragraph had been copied and pasted into documents, contradicting much of what the rest of the document said. The lack of information for jurors was poor.
Many of us had hardly left our homes for much of the year, so to be suddenly expected to travel on public transport and attend court was a little overwhelming. As I mentioned above the ushers really did try and let you know what was happening. But they often had very little information themselves. I think there is also a habit for staff to perhaps forget that for most jurors, this would be the first time they have been in a court building.
It’s hard to say with some things whether it is a COVID issue, or whether things are always like this. I guess you would need to sit on a jury in the ‘real world’ to compare.
All in all I’m glad I had the experience, even if most of it was spent sitting around not doing very much. Even when on a case, there is a lot of sitting around, waiting for courts to be ready or the judge to deal with some point of law with counsel. Due to the set up of the waiting room, I struggled to use my laptop. But I did manage to get some reading done – something I rarely have time to do these days.
Annie Clift, Feb 2021.