Sunday, 18 March 2012

Something of a Trial

I have just completed my first ever period of Jury Service, during which time I served as a Juror on a rape trial.  As an ex-employee of the Police (IT Training Manager at Sussex Police for 8 years), I wasn't sure if they would have me, but a chat with the Jury Officer on my first day reassured me that it was sufficiently long ago (nearly seven years) that it wasn't an issue.  The process is that you go into a 'pool' of available jurors for a two week period (my thanks to my employers for allowing me the paid time to perform my civic duty here) and are randomly selected from that pool to form a jury of 'twelve good men and true' as trials require.  I was called to duty on my second day and sat on the trial for six days.

Now that it's over, I'm still processing the experience from a variety of perspectives - personal, emotional, psychological and educational. Here are some reflections...

On Day One, I found myself in essentially a Waiting Room full of strangers - at our courthouse, some 60-odd people, enough to form four separate juries for four separate courtrooms and trials.  I was not called on my first day, but saw two other groups of people taken off to become a Jury.

On Day Two, I was one of 15 randomly called out to form a cadre, who was then taken into court and again randomly whittled down to 12.  Into the Jury box we went, we were sworn in, and we were off - Prosecution was on her feet, Indictment read out, hard copy issued to us, and the case started.  I had barely exchanged a word with my fellow jurors, but we were going to have to collectively reach a verdict shortly which would profoundly affect everyone involved in the case.  Suddenly it was very real!

To misappropriate the introduction to TV's Judge Judy, "the people are real, the cases are real, the rulings are final".  We had before us a young man accused of rape, and, as the Prosecution laid out and developed its case, we heard from the victim herself and various other witnesses, who were examined and cross-examined by both the Prosecution and the Defence solicitors.  I should state here that the Prosecution actually dropped its case on Day Six and we were directed by the Judge to acquit the defendant and we were excused immediately.  Many in the Jury didn't understand what had just happened and others felt aggrieved that we hadn't been allowed to hear the Defence case nor be allowed to arrive at a verdict ourselves. More on the impacts of that later.

I have never before felt the need - nor the responsibility - to pay such close attention to every single word spoken and detail described, as I did in court for those six days.  I took notes - the old-fashioned pad and pen way.  No tech allowed in the Court Room.

The alleged offence took place in September last year, yet the trial was at the end of February. Victim and witnesses were being asked to recall details such as how much was drunk, what was drunk, where they were standing, who said what to whom, what time did such-and-such happen, etc.  Any deviation from the statements taken at the time was jumped on by both the Prosecution and Defence lawyers, depending on who sensed the most advantage.  And I began to question my own attention to detail.  I struggle to remember what I did last week, let alone what I was doing 6 months ago.  I don't expect to live my life on the off-chance that I might need to remember every detail later under sceptical cross-examination.  I certainly don't pay as much attention, or consider the details so critical, when I'm learning something myself or via the instruction/facilitation of others.

As a result, I became paranoid that I would remember all the information with which we were being presented in the case. It took a conscious effort to listen with all my attention.  At the end of each day, I was exhausted.   I was surprised at how few of my fellow jurors took notes however.  How on earth were they going to be able to discuss the discrepancies and differences in the various stories we were being told when we retired to arrive at a verdict? Were some minds made up already?

Worth also mentioning here Tuckman's Group Development Model (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) in relation to the dynamics of the jury I now found myself a part of. There was a very obvious gender imbalance of 10 women to 2 men on our jury, a fact, no doubt, which gave the defendant some cause for concern.  When we retired at various points during the trial to our dedicated Jury Waiting Room, we were free to chat and discuss the trial.  This provided a focus to our discussions and a fast track to getting to know each other quickly.  Lot of  Forming and Storming going on! But I think it's safe to say that we were really only starting to 'Norm' at the point where the trail was terminated.  I was lucky that my employers facilitated my absence and covered my salary (I returned the favour by doing as much work as I was able to do remotely in the early mornings and evenings however).  Others were not so fortunate and were keen to get back to work as soon as possible.  Was this influencing their thinking and their attitude?  We never got to deliberate and arrive at a verdict, so we never got to 'Perform' (nor, indeed, 'Mourn' the end of the process either).

So, what were my take-aways from the experience?   
  • Everyone's experience - and therefore their recall - of something is unique to themselves.  From a training/learning perspective I will remember that one size does not necessarily fit all.
  • Sometimes note-taking gets in the way of hearing the next point. 
  • People need closure and staged endings.
  • Beware of Groupthink!  
  • Lock up your Daughters! (Seriously, have you had a conversation with your children about learning to recognise situations that can escalate such that they are out of control and vulnerable? Drink and drugs really, really, don't mix!)
  • Everyone who is summoned to Jury Service should do it. It's an important civic duty and a reminder to us all that real life is happening out there and affects us all.
Re. that last point, I'm now investigating applying to become a Magistrate. I'd like to be making more of a difference than I am at the moment.  This has been a profound experience for me; I recommend it to everyone who gets the call.  Let me know what you think.


  1. Niall, some really good points in this - your observations on recall and note taking in particular.
    Nicely written too. Thanks1

  2. Niall, great to see your perspective in black and white! Still not heard anything back yet-but reading this and speaking to you has made the experience less intimidating! Will le you know how I get on!


  3. Fiona Quigley @fionaquigs18 March 2012 at 19:56

    Hi Niall, I read your blog this morning, just didn't have time to reply until now.

    I love your observations about note-taking - definitely hard to focus of taking notes and then listening to next point. But I wonder if using tech has reduced our note taking skills and possibly impacted on our attention spans? I do find myself less able to focus for the length of time I used to be able to focus for. Perhaps Courts need to use tech in the form of recording audio or video & then the note taking could focus on writing down time codes of certain points.

    Your point about people being worried about getting back work and how this impacts their focus is very valid. I wonder if the CPS realises this? It is certainly not something I had thought of before.

    Best wishes,

  4. Thanks all for you comments. As a 'mindmapper' myself, with day book after day book filled with my daily mindmapped notes, I struggled with note-taking in court, and fell back on good old linear, with headings, line-by-line, page-after-page notes. For some reason, mindmapping just didn't seem to fit the bill and actually required more thought than linear note-taking. This is something I want to reflect on in more detail. Have you any views on this yoursleves?

  5. I can see the experience has had quite an effect on you. I became a school governor for similar reason, 'wanting to make a difference'. Interesting point about note taking. I've attended several web training sessions and found that mind maps was the way to go. But I agree note taking can be a distraction especially when you need to focus your attention on such important details.I guess courts can't have 20 minute byte sized chunks for juries to digest as we do in training sessions. Good luck with the magistrate investigations.