‘It was a small step for mankind, a huge step for the deaf community’
With the assistance of an interpreter, Richard Dudley became Ireland’s first deaf juror
Last week, as a historic bill was passed in the Oireachtas officially recognising Irish Sign Language (ISL), Richard Dudley was making his own small piece of legal history on the other side of Dublin.
In the Criminal Courts of Justice, Mr Dudley became the first deaf person to sit on an Irish jury.
“It was a small step for mankind, a huge step for the deaf community,” he told The Irish Times.
“I was absolutely determined to serve. When I got the letter I said I’m definitely going to go for it and see what happens. It would be a good experience for myself. I do know deaf people have previously gone and have been unsuccessful.”
Until 2010 there was an unwritten rule that deaf people were automatically excused from jury service, whether they liked it or not. The main concern for the State was a deaf juror would require an interpreter to be present during deliberations, contravening the principle of jury secrecy.
Then the Free Legal Advice Centre (Flac) began taking and winning individual cases challenging the rule. The result was deaf jurors were allowed sit on jury panels, but until last week, they were never picked to sit on actual juries.
On the first day of his jury service last week, Mr Dudley was asked by a court official if he would be able for the case.
“I said ‘yea, absolutely, as long as the interpreters are provided.’”
However the judge excused Mr Dudley, saying he needed to confirm what the law said before he could serve. Mr Dudley was sent back downstairs to the rest of the panel where he remained until Thursday when he was selected for a criminal damage trial.
A qualified ISL interpreter, Vanessa O’Connell, was provided by the Courts Service for the duration of the trial. As well as interpreting the evidence into Irish Sign Language for Mr Dudley in court, she accompanied him everywhere else including to lunch so he could chat to his fellow jurors.
“I needed full access to an Irish sign language interpreter. I would have been like a fish out of water without her.”
Mr Dudley said he received “amazing” support from the Courts Service, the judge and his fellow jurors who were very interested in hearing about deaf culture. “I held the floor for a while,” he said.
The trial was stopped shortly after it began when the accused pleaded guilty, meaning the jury never had a chance to deliberate.
However if it did, Ms O’Connell would have been present, after taking an oath that she would keep the deliberations a secret. She would not have been able to take part in the deliberations herself.
“I would totally, 100 per cent encourage deaf people to go ahead and do [JURY SERVICE]. If you’re picked there’s no need to be nervous because the interpreters are going to be there full time for you. There’s going to be no barrier to communication,” Mr Dudley said.
He recalled at one point the judge even stopped proceedings and asked if the parties were speaking too fast for Ms O’Connell. “I thought that was very accommodating,” he said.
After discharging the jurors, Judge Sinéad Ní Chúlacháin said they had made “a little bit of legal history.”
She noted in living memory women had been banned from sitting on juries and said she hoped in the years to come the ban on deaf people would seem just as strange.
Of course deaf people have been appearing in court for decades; as witnesses, victims and sometimes defendants. When they appear it is often Ms O’Connell who interprets for them to the extent that she has even become a bit a celebrity.
“I went into a court in Longford this week and the judge said “Am I right in saying I say you on TV?” she said.
Ms O’Connell realised the judge was taking about when she did the sign language interpretation for Gerry Adams’ retirement speech at the Sinn Féin ardfheis.