Inside the Irish jury
Our jury system – 12 ordinary citizens conversing in secret to decide a person’s guilt or innocence – sounds like a strange social experiment, yet it’s a cornerstone of our legal system. Does it work?
Behind closed doors: serving on a jury is established as one of the key duties of the citizen. It is many people’s only contact with the courts and the justice system. Illustration: Eoin Coveney
Take a group of adults at random from a city street. Apply a filter that automatically excludes from the sample all judges, lawyers, gardaí, soldiers, foreigners, presidents, prison officers or people who have been convicted of serious offences. (These categories can be fluid; previous iterations have excluded women.) Of those who are left, make participation optional for, say, doctors, nurses, midwives, TDs, Senators, priests, monks, vets, pilots, students, ship masters, teachers, over-65s, senior executives and university lecturers.
And if anyone else has a good enough excuse, or if we don’t like the cut of their jib, we’ll let them off too.
Eventually we end up with 12 individuals. We tell them to drop everything. For the next few days, weeks or months, we’ll talk them through two cogently argued, contradictory accounts of the same event and give them a quick primer in the basic principles that should guide them in choosing between them. Then we’ll take away their mobile phones, lock them in a room and tell them not to come out until they have decided which version of the story to believe. How they come up with their decision is their own business; all we want is a simple Yes or No.
And the stakes? The stakes are high. This decision could well be one of the most important these 12 people will ever make.
Put like that, the jury system sounds vaguely far-fetched, an almost arbitrary social experiment. Perhaps it was when, about 1000 AD, the concept of 12 people being nominated to decide whether someone had committed a crime began to circulate. Today this system is a cornerstone of our justice system, enshrined in the Constitution and imbued with such unassailable legitimacy that serving on a jury is established as one of the key duties of the citizen. It is many people’s only point of contact with the courts and the justice system, even if, paradoxically, it remains shrouded in myth and mystery.
“I did the whole dressing-in-a-suit-thing,” says Carol, who sat on a jury for the first time last year. “People say if you wear a suit you’re less likely to be picked.”
As the names of potential jurors are called out by the court registrar, each side – the prosecution and the defence – can reject up to seven people without having to give any reason (“without cause”). They are also allowed an unlimited number of challenges “for cause”, by showing that a potential juror is unsuitable because, for example, they know one of the parties.
“That was the only time I felt intimidated, because the whole court looks at you when you stand up,” says Patrick, who is in his 20s and lives in Dublin. “They eye you up and down and say Yes or No.”
In the Irish system, legal teams’ knowledge of the day’s jury panel is limited to names, occupations and appearances, and practitioners admit their challenges without cause are as scientific as astrology.
“I’m really unconvinced as to the value of it other than the psychological value,” says Dara Robinson, a solicitor who specialises in criminal law. “It’s extremely difficult to assess how a person is likely to react to any particular bit of evidence on the basis of their appearance. You have to make certain assumptions.”
Clients and their lawyers will occasionally agree a strategy beforehand, hoping to secure a gender or age breakdown they deem favourable to their case. Patterns are hard to pin down, but it’s a safe bet, for example, that a young man accused of robbing a post office wouldn’t be keen on a middle-aged jury packed with shopkeepers. Many solicitors advise their clients to veto taxi drivers. The defence might well be wary of suits, whereas the prosecution might not fancy its chances with a line-up of tattoos, piercings and bomber jackets.
“If the accused is a particular age, late teens or early 20s, you would be conscious that women of 40-55 would have children of that age group and would be perceived as being perhaps more open to having a degree of empathy with the accused in those circumstances,” says Michael O’Higgins SC. Even lawyers who use the challenge sparingly feel it offers welcome reassurance to their clients. At the very least, it allows them to filter out anyone who might be “a few olives short of a pizza”, as one barrister puts it, without causing offence.
Whether because of, or in spite of, the challenge system, juries often tend to look like a reasonable cross-section of society. “I remember thinking it was a very random selection of people that you could just gather up on O’Connell Street,” says Anne, who has twice served on a jury. “It really is a mix of ages, life experience, economic standing and everything.”
How the profile of a jury can influence the verdict is far from clear-cut, anyway. In recent years, some campaign groups have called for gender quotas in rape cases, on the assumption that a woman’s perspective on rape is drowned out by the man’s perspective, resulting in unjust acquittals. If that were true, one would expect that female-dominated juries would convict more readily than male- dominated ones.