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31st May 2017

Here’s What Really Happens When You’re Called Up For Jury Duty

James Fenton

It’s something you think about when you read about a horrible case in the newspaper or when you watch courtroom dramas unfold on TV. What would it be like to serve on a jury? If you’re anything like me you never would have thought you’d actually be called to serve.

That was until the beginning of April of this year when a letter arrived indicating that I had indeed been summoned to serve my country as part of a 12 person jury at the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin. 

My initial reaction was a bit nonplussed to be fair. My assigned date for jury duty wasn’t until Monday May 8 so I placed it in the back of my mind along with all the other important stuff us adults like to put off for as long as possible. 

After a while though and with the date creeping closer it was time to respond. The initial letter comes with a closing date by which time you must confirm that you will be attending or come up with some sort of excuse. Otherwise, a fine will be on its way to you. 

Many of you will be wondering the same questions I’ve been hearing so often since I got called. “What about work? Don’t they mind you taking time off? Do they really have to pay you?”

The facts are yes they might mind but there is really nothing they can do about it. All you have to do is show them the official letter you received and they legally have to take it into account. They must pay you so don’t worry about upsetting anyone. After all, it is your civic duty! 

With everything sorted with work all I had to do was wait until the big day arrived. Some colleagues and friends warned that I could be away from my desk for anything up to a few weeks. I didn’t really take much notice and assumed I’d be in and out of there in one day.

In fact, I was so certain of this that on my arrival at the Criminal Court on the Monday, I had my laptop in my bag, assuming that I’d be back in the office by the afternoon. Instead, my stay turned out to be a lot longer than expected.  

So what happens when you actually get there? Understandably, there are strict security checks. Any bag you have with you will be placed through a metal detector just like in the airport. 

You are then led to the jury selection room where you are asked to take a seat with approximately 100 other potential jurors who have been called on the same week as you. 

What follows is a tedious enough experience not unlike waiting at the motor taxation office or somewhere equally as dull. 

Luckily, I had been pre-warned that things might drag on a bit so I packed a decent book with me to help keep boredom at bay. 

After a while, a man took to the podium at the front of the room and began the process of the roll call which took the guts of 10 or 15 minutes by the time everybody’s name had been called out. 

You really aren’t told much else but by scanning the room I could see there were some faces which were probably just as perplexed as mine was. 

Next, the big TV screens at the front of the room switch on and one of the judges appears live from one of the courtrooms. 

This is where things start to feel a bit real as defendants are wheeled out and the details of their alleged demeanours are read aloud over the speaker system. Then, the names of potential jurors are called and the chosen few must make their way to the courtroom in order to be assessed. 

Pretty soon, my name was called and I realised I was on my way into a rather grim case. I got to my feet and shuffled in along with the others. Luckily, by the time I made it into the room, the jury for this particular case had already been selected. Back to jury selection room for me. 

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It wasn’t long before my name was called out again and lo and behold the next case didn’t exactly seem like a walk in the park either. 

This time it appeared that my services would actually be required. I was called up to take my oath (you are entitled to take a religious or non-religous one) and told to sit with the other jurors who had been selected. 

The defendant has the right, through their solicitor, to ‘challenge’ anyone who they feel may not be suitable. This means that the judge will simply tell you that you haven’t been selected and off you go back to the jury selection room. The challenge can be based on age, gender or even if they just plain don’t like the look of you. Don’t take it personally! 

Also, the judge was quite understanding with people who felt they wouldn’t be able to commit to the estimated length of the trial for whatever reason. All you have to do is tell him/her when asked and they will dismiss you. 

While I was selected on the Monday, some people may not be selected until Tuesday or later (if at all).

The estimated length of time for the trial I was assigned to was six to seven days which I felt was reasonable enough. 

Once the 12 of us were officially sworn in, we were taken to our own jury room where we would be spending a lot of time over the next couple of weeks. 

The first job was to select a foreman. Basically, this role was a mediator between the jury and the rest of the court. The foreman also has to read the verdict out at the end of the trial. Thankfully for us, one juror volunteered pretty quickly so this process wasn’t any more drawn out than it should have been. 

When you move around the building it is always done in groups of 12, accompanied by one of the ‘jury minders’. Basically, if somebody wants to go to the toilet or out for a smoke, everybody has to travel together. 

This is for our own protection but generally, people preferred moving in groups anyway given the nature of the building that we were in. You are never left to mix with any defendants or anyone connected to them.

The jury room is fitted with two bathrooms anyway so you’re never far away if you need to go. 

So let’s get to the question on everybody’s lips. “Is it pretty must just like a holiday from work?” While the hours may not be as long, it can be equally as strenuous! 

Generally, you don’t have to be at court every day until 10 or 10.30am so, for me anyway, I was able to enjoy a slightly extra lie-in which I don’t normally get when heading into the office.

Every day without fail, the judge calls an end to proceedings at 4pm (unless somebody is in the middle of speaking or a testimony is not quite complete). Sometimes we were even sent home earlier if the judge felt that things weren’t going to progress much further on any particular day. Remember, there is a lot of sitting around in the jury room as barristers and judges discuss legal matters in the absence of the jury. Don’t worry though as you’re provided with plenty of tea, coffee, and biscuits to keep starvation at bay. Oh, and leave your lunch at home. Every day at 1pm you’re brought to the jury cafeteria where you’re fed a fairly decent meal. A nice way to save a few quid. 

While the hours may be quite favourable, don’t be fooled by the somewhat ‘glamorous’ image some may have of serving on a jury. Depending on the case, some of the things you hear and see aren’t enjoyable whatsoever and can be quite disturbing. 

Some days I would go home feeling emotionally drained from what I had heard and as the days go by you’re hoping that it ends soon.

The length of the trial I was assigned to in fact ended up lasting nine days instead of the expected six or seven. This included a day and a half of jury deliberation where we discussed the evidence of our trial and the verdict. And yes, the decision has to be unanimous. 

All in all, I felt that my time serving on a jury helped me grow as a person. It was fulfilling experience and one which I will never ever forget. 

If you are thinking of bunking off I wouldn’t recommend it. Upon completion, you get a sense of having played a massive part in the future(s) of the people involved and that is a truly surreal experience.

While your fellow jurors are strangers to begin with, by the end of the trial you’ve been through the mill together. It was nice to have 11 other people you could share the experience wit but remember, you’re only allowed discuss the trial with the jury members in the jury room. Not even in the cafeteria.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of trials will be for fairly petty stuff and may even last just a day or two. Perhaps I was just unlucky. However, I’m now free from service for 10 years so it’ll be a long time before I’m back in the Criminal Court – hopefully!

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