Long's arm of the law

 

In the Bible, many were called but few were chosen. In that other arbiter of our lives, the courts, many are called and few turn up.

Those who are called for jury service and do arrive, find the "few chose n" rule coming into its own again. Lots more people, it will transpire, have been called than will be needed. This is to avoid the unthinkable situation, among the myriad which can delay a court, of there not being enough people to make a jury.

Recently I too did my bit for the noble edifice that is the law of the land. The experience was somewhere between going to the dentist and a free, two-week holiday in a cold country.

When I received my call-up papers, the first reaction of nearly everyone I mentioned this to, especially fellow journalists, was "you can get out of it!". Many labour under the impression that members of our calling are automatically disqualified from or forgiven jury service. The rationale is some mystical belief that journalists have access to the secrets and sins of the whole society. Harrumph.

The truth is that the only journalists who are automatically excluded are those whose daily bread is earned by recording the proceedings of courts of law. Any other is fully entitled and desired to serve. The Dublin County Registrar, Michael Quinlan, says 3,800 people are called up each month for the nine sitting months of the year in the Dublin courts. This pool is to provide juries for the Circuit, the Central Criminal and the High Court. That's more than 34,000 people annually, with the names taken from the electoral rolls.

Of this figure, Quinlan says, 33 per cent attend. Of the remaining 67 per cent, 40 per cent are excused "of right" - good reasons such as being dead, for example, as people do tend to slip into a greater consciousness between elections.

The other main categories of automatic disqualification are: those aged over 65; a clergyman or nun; a TD or Senator; anybody with a criminal record; teachers and full-time students; and practising medical doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists or vets. The secretary to the Commissioners of Irish Lights also gets an honourable mention.

What about the rest? The missing 27 per cent? Will Quinlan come after you? "Oh, that's out of our hands, we leave that to the summons officers," he says with relief. (The stated fine for non-attendance is £50). He adds that the problem is greater for regional courts, where additional thousands have to be called each year, because farmers find it so hard to free themselves for duty.

Commonly-accepted reasons for excusal including having booked a holiday, caring for children or being indispensable at work (but aren't we all?). Expenses are not paid, but during a trial meals are provided, and the hope is that employers will give staff paid leave to do their service.

Despite those all-too-familiar cries of "you're mad" in my ears, I anticipated my circuit-court service with fond memories of the Australian magistrates'-court circuit which I reported in the late 1970s. Those were awash with earnest policemen with names such as Kronk and Dredge, and enlivened by characters such as Mr Proposch SM (Stipendiary Magistrate, not Sex Maniac, as many of the young lags liked to pretend). Proposch was a dead ringer for Colonel Sanders of chicken fame. Perhaps there was a closer connection, because he habitually plonked his open briefcase before him on the elevated bench and popped his hand in every so often for little snacks (finger lickin?), while counsel earnestly put the case below.

But I digress. On the first day of my Dublin jury service several hundred of us squashed into Court 23 down at the Central Court. Young and old, male and female, all human life was there. There was a first-day-of-school air about the somewhat cramped assembly. The clerk read out his list (a very long list, starting at 1 and going to 700) and the individual identified by name and number on his jury service (I was 599) has to pipe up "Here". Nobody was daring enough to say "Anseo."

There were two things to note. The first was that only about half the numbers between 1 and 700 were called out, so presumably those other individuals had already been excused. The second was the still overwhelming homogeneity of the electorate. Even with all the blithe talk of migration and European integration, it is noticeable in this last year of the 20th century that in such a setting all the names are deeply Irish.

There was a problem on the first day, and the television monitors in the jury-panel room - which is seriously under-supplied with seats - were not working. Thus there was a couple of hours sitting/standing/looking enviously at people on seats, until the decision was reached that the monitors were out of commission for the day. Then the 250 or so of us were herded into a courtroom designed for about 100 while the call-up, something like bingo, took place. Everything went smoothly except a garda was offended by my hat, the wearing of which is a blatant breach of court protocol. What a memory lapse! Too many years had passed since Proposch beamed down on my bare head.

Seven challenges are allowed to both prosecution and defence when the jury is being selected. These are done on sight, with the basic information on the jurors available to the lawyers. It seemed to me that women were more likely to be challenged than men, but that might have been a standard response when empanelling in cases of sexual assault on women, as a few of the trials during my service were.

My number didn't come up, and so the next day we all turned up again at 10 a.m. The monitors were working so we had no more excursions around the precincts of the courts, trying not to look like miscreants. On that and the succeeding six mornings (Fridays we were excused) the scene was similar, with tension in the air as the numbers were called in court 23, then relaxation and freedom for those of us not among the chosen.

So what were the major impressions? Firstly, that an awful lot of people waste an awful lot of time in their jury service; secondly, that the judges and jury-service personnel are efficient and eminently reasonable (there was no argument when one of my panel colleagues opted not to sit in judgment of a couple of painfully young-looking lads on charges of petty theft, because he couldn't face the prospect of sending them to jail); and thirdly, that the oath is a rather complicated piece of language which many jurors have difficulty repeating off pat, having only heard a top-speed version delivered by the clerk of court, who has, of course, said it innumerable times. Oh, and the fourth is that Central Percs in Temple Bar is a great place to go for a perfectly-warmed chocolate croissant at 11.30 on a weekday morning - if you have escaped the clutches of the law.