Serving on an Irish jury: ‘It’s very daunting’

As a new study looks at the role of juries in criminal trials, we speak to former jurors about their experiences

A new report from UCD focuses on the experiences of judges in criminal trials, including the role played by juries. But absent from the study is the voice of jurors themselves. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

A new report from UCD focuses on the experiences of judges in criminal trials, including the role played by juries. But absent from the study is the voice of jurors themselves. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Type “jury duty” into a search engine and the list of related search terms includes “excuse letter template”, “holiday booked” and “payment” – suggesting the first thought for many when receiving a jury summons is not civic-minded.

Last year, roughly one-in-five people called for jury duty attended court. Of the 42,840 people asked to serve on a jury, 29,682 were excused, while 4,248 were no shows.

A major report published last week found that judges were understanding of this reluctance to serve. The “emotional toll” of listening to harrowing evidence and the fact that jurors are out of pocket for parking, public transport and childcare costs were just some of the concerns expressed by the bench in the first study of its kind. One judge described the indifference shown to jurors in Ireland as “most unfair” while another described the treatment of jurors as “appalling”.

Judges and Juries in Ireland: An Empirical Study, published by University College Dublin’s Sutherland school of law and launched by Chief Justice Frank Clarke, was based on interviews conducted with 22 judges and 11 barristers. The report focused on the experiences of judges in criminal trials, including the role played by juries. But absent from the study was the voice of jurors themselves.

The Irish Times has spoken to more than a dozen adults who have served, or have avoided serving on a jury, in recent years. All of their names have been changed to protect their anonymity because the law is unclear about whether jurors are permitted to speak about their experiences. The establishment of a committee to get feedback from jurors is one of the UCD study’s key recommendations.

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
Serving on a jury is established as one of the key duties of the citizen. For many it is their only contact with the courts and the justice system. Illustration: Eoin Coveney

‘Apprehensive’

“It’s very daunting,” said Gloria (64), who was called to determine whether a man was guilty of child abuse in Dublin several years ago.

What if I make the wrong decision in either direction? What if I find somebody guilty and they are innocent?

“Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt a bit intimidated being in that environment with all the pomp and ceremony and the wigs and gowns and the language itself,” she said.

Brendan (69), a part-time science teacher, who recently served on a Dublin jury, said he was “very apprehensive”.

“What if I make the wrong decision in either direction? What if I find somebody guilty and they are innocent? What if find somebody innocent and I’m wrong? He or she could go back out there and commit more heinous crimes,” he said.

“You get the letter, you try to get out of it, and then you realise you can’t. So you go along,” said Fiona (35), who served on a rape-trial jury several years ago. “If it was my mother she would have been straight down to her GP to get a letter” for an excuse not to serve, Fiona added.

James, who served on a murder-trial jury more than five years ago, said he looked at the list of exemptions and briefly considered coming up with an excuse, but was “happy to take part, maybe out of curiosity more than anything”.

Judges, lawyers, gardaí, soldiers, presidents, prison officers and former prisoners are automatically “ineligible” or “disqualified” from serving on a jury. Priests, pilots, doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists, vets, TDs, Senators, port-workers and senior executives have a “right of excusal” not to serve. Public servants, including teachers, lecturers and local authority staff can also be excused, depending on whether their functions can be filled by colleagues.

Given the size, experience and diversity of the public service in Ireland, it is “remarkable” how many thousands of wise, educated and informed people are automatically excused from jury duty, according to a source who has studied the issue in academia.

The result is that juries are disproportionately young and old, “white and grey haired”, according to the source, who said there was no real data on the social make-up of juries in Ireland, “none whatsoever”.

“They were ordinary Joe Soaps like myself,” said Gloria, of her 11 fellow jurors.

“There was one woman who kept saying there wasn’t enough evidence and I couldn’t understand why.”

Gloria said the woman would question the accuracy of transcripts of what had just been stated in court. “She’d say ‘that’s not what was said’. She needed a lot of clarity that girl.” After 2½ weeks, and a couple of days of deliberations, the jury reached a majority guilty verdict.

Expenses

Currently, there is no payment for jury service and expenses are not provided. Judges told researchers that they considered jury service a civic duty but felt strongly that jurors should not be out of pocket.

Employers are obliged to pay staff serving on juries, but one judge described having to speak to employers directly, where the employers were not fully accommodating of their employees’ jury duties.

There is no reimbursement for loss of earnings for the self-employed. One judge said he frequently exempted self-employed people from serving because of the “prohibitive” financial burden.

Compensation schemes for jury service exist in most developed common law countries. In Australia, jurors are given a daily rate for attendance together with travel expenses and a subsistence allowance. In the UK, jurors are given the return fares for public transport and a mileage rate where private transport is used. Parking fees are reimbursed with prior permission. In Scotland, childminding expenses may be reimbursed in certain circumstances.

In Holland, jurors are professional. A banking trial there, for example, would probably be decided by six accountants.

If they found some evidence or aspect of the case distressing in the extreme, they can request a (PTSD) debriefing

James said he spent around €20-€25 a week on expenses for a three-week trial, “but I’m probably lucky in that there are good public transport options” in Dublin.

He suggested giving jurors €5 per day for expenses. It “may not cover all costs for some but the gesture would certainly be appreciated.” One judge recommended giving jurors €20 a day for expenses.

As well as the costs involved for those who perform jury service, there may be an “emotional toll” of having to listen to harrowing evidence, according to the report.

“The reality is some people can have reactions and memories that they need to talk about,” said a spokesman for the Courts Service. “If they found some evidence or aspect of the case distressing in the extreme, they can request a (PTSD) debriefing. With the court’s permission and with the advice of the judiciary, the Court Service can seek a professional person like a psychiatrist or a counsellor for a juror to speak to. It’s not commonplace,” the spokesman added.

Intimidation

Although the experience of jurors has been considered in the design of modern courthouses, with secure and segregated access routes to courtrooms, there is still only one single entrance to most courthouses that everybody must walk through – including accuser and accused.

Gloria recalled the intimidation she felt going in and out of the Court of Criminal Justice (CCJ) building every day, not from anybody involved in her trial, but from people involved in another trial. “Every day going in, there were these scumbags hanging around [outside] intimidating people. They didn’t know what jury I was on but they were intimidating everybody going in.”

As the names of those called for a particular trial are called out by the court registrar, lawyers for both the prosecution and defence can challenge up to seven people without reason, and as many as they want with reason. All the legal teams know is the name and occupation of each potential juror.

“If it’s a robbery in a shop, you don’t want people (jurors) who work in shops,” said Michael O’Higgins SC, one of Ireland’s leading criminal defence barristers. “If it’s a break-in in a house, you don’t want property-holders.”

I work with people who have been in on cases for several months. Obviously, it’s a different scenario but I think people, as much as they can, should try to serve

“Accountants are unpopular because, rightly or wrongly, they’re perceived as being just numbers people who draw lines,” said Mr O’Higgins. “Having said that, I’ve heard colleagues say they like having systems analysts on juries because, if you’re talking about procedural deficits” in the prosecution’s case, accountants were “receptive to the argument”.

Unfortunately, there is no real way of knowing how the dynamic of the group experience contributes to a verdict. Juries don’t give reasons for their decisions and the Court of Appeal has had to quash several high profile jury verdicts in recent years for being “perverse”, inexplicable or against the weight of the evidence.

“I think we all moan,” said Fiona, “but if you’re called, and you’re selected and you’re in that [jury] room – it sounds really corny – but you do feel that there is a sense of civic duty here. A person’s future is at stake here, there are lots of different parties involved and you do have to take it seriously. You get that sense from other juries as well, that they are engaged, they are there on time every day taking it seriously.”

“I think the jury system should be retained as a civic duty,” said James. “I know you can get very unlucky. I work with people who have been in on cases for several months. Obviously, it’s a different scenario but I think people, as much as they can, should try to serve.”

Jury minders

Dublin jurors reserve special mention for their court appointed jury minders, who are usually retired firemen, paramedics or other public servants. Outside of Dublin and Cork, the role is still filled by gardaí.

Brendan said his jury minders were “great, terrific. Always good humoured and reassuring. They were like the hospital porters or the people who wheel patients in and out of the operating theatre making jokes”.

When the jury minders were first introduced in Dublin in 2009, advertisements for the role stated that successful candidates would be “diplomatic, organised, smart of appearance and with sound judgment”.

Fiona said the jury minders were “hugely important, they are the ones who calm you down when you’re brought into the room. The jury minder explains to you, this is your room, this is how the day is going to go. They take the phones off you and put them in a press. He was explaining everything to us, calming things down, kind of assuring you.”

“If it wasn’t for our minder, we would have been lost without him. It’s such an important role. I’ve been in court before for other stuff and you really don’t get to see the importance of their role.”