Dr Beverly Cross recently underwent her first jury service lasting nine working days in Sheffield Crown Court. It was an unpleasant case that had some quite distressing effects on some of her co-jurors. She believes changes need to be made to deal with juror stress
When you are called to jury service in England, you are warned that you can expect two weeks away from your normal life realities, and possibly even three. You are also sent a booklet, which is helpful on many points but gives little, if any, guidance if the trial places you under severe emotional stress.
Stress during jury service can be caused by a number of factors. Disturbing evidence can cause stress by its very nature, while evidence can also touch a nerve or reawaken unpleasant memories. Jury members can also feel pressure from the impact of their decision on the accused if found guilty – or on the victims if cleared.
Conflict among the jury can also cause stress, as can confusion and lack of information. Away from the actual case, economic and job concerns also lead to concern and worry, especially if someone is self-employed or employed but not being paid while on jury service, particularly if the trial is a long one.
I recently sat as a juror on a trial that lasted nine working days. There were 13 counts, six complainants and one accused. These were historical sexual offences that occurred between 18 and 40 years ago, when all the complainants were little girls or very young women. The counts ranged from rape and attempted rape to indecent assault. One of the complainants was the defendant’s own daughter, whose evidence consisted of allegations of attempted rape and other forms of serious sexual abuse that began when she was aged seven and did not end until she ran away from home at the age of 16.
Two of the complainants alleging rape were the accused’s nieces by marriage. The other three complainants were a third niece and two girls (now women in their 40s and 50s) who at one point lived next door to the defendant.
It took two days of deliberation but we found the accused guilty on all 13 counts and he was sentenced to a total of 27 years imprisonment, some sentences concurrent and some consecutive. After we had delivered our verdict, we heard he was awaiting trial on further similar but much more recent allegations in relation to a step-child from his third marriage.
A difficult experience
There were several jurors who found the experience of this trial difficult. We were listening to seriously disturbing evidence from day one and these jurors suffered from sleeplessness throughout the whole trial. And yet as a juror, you are expected to retain your powers of concentration and emotional detachment in spite of feelings of revulsion, exhaustion and social isolation.
It cannot be easy for a juror’s family to watch a loved one in such a state of anxiety that he or she cannot share. There is counselling available but not until after the trial finishes. But by then, the damage may well have been done.
I can understand the argument that even a professional counsellor might influence a jury member during a trial. But surely, if the boundaries are made very clear, a well trained specialist professional could help a juror maintain a sense of equilibrium during a long trial without influencing her/his thinking as a juror.
Another question that has been raised recently is whether we are asking too much of jurors. It is a fair question – particularly if the process is damaging their health. At least three of us on my jury had memories reawakened that we had thought we had long buried.
Some of the jurors in my case were self-employed and the compensation for jury service of £8.12 per hour was considerably short of their actual loss of earnings. The average annual earnings of a British worker were estimated at £26,500 in 2014. Assuming a 40-hour working week, this equates to £12.74 per hour. Quite apart from work piling up during a juror’s absence, you may also have to cope with significant loss of earnings for which you will have no compensation unless you or your employer have taken out insurance.
I was thoroughly impressed by the common sense and courtesy shown by my fellow jury members during the trial and especially during the deliberations. It took us less than a minute to elect our foreman, who did a truly excellent job. My only concern was that we were an all-Caucasian jury. In fact, during my nine days in court, I did not see a single person in the jury area who was not Caucasian, which surprised me, given our region’s cultural and ethnic diversity.
There has been at least one well-publicised example of a jury who appeared completely confused about its role in recent years. Thankfully, we could understand the judge’s directions in our case but had to remind ourselves that they were not written in stone. Not all our verdicts were unanimous – we had majorities in respect of two out of the 13 counts.
Like all juries, we had to discuss what we thought was meant by ‘reasonable doubt’ or ‘being sure’ about the evidence and our verdicts. We were conscious that a guilty verdict on just one of the counts of rape meant a long prison sentence.
But where we had conflicting views, we managed this sensibly and with good humour – and the personality and skills of the foreman was a significant factor.
As we left the courtroom for the last time, we were asked to sign a list if we wanted exemption from being on a jury for the next ten years.
I was one of those who signed it.
Dr Beverly Cross has a Ph.D. in criminology and is a semi-retired solicitor specialising in charity law