I’ve been on jury service for the past two weeks. I received notification a few weeks ago that my services were required, that I had to commit to at least two weeks and that I couldn’t get out of it. I could defer for a year, but there was no way to avoid it completely; I decided to go ahead as requested. And the way it’s worked out I’ve had to commit to two weeks and a day, assuming we reach a verdict on my second case tomorrow. Whatever I may have thought about the idea of jury service, I decided to take the process very seriously. It’s a huge responsibility, as I’m sure you’re aware; you really do get the sense that you hold people’s lives, or at least their futures, in your hands. Even after the trial you have certain responsibilities, not least around the privacy and anonymity of the people involved. The protagonists, I suppose you’d call them.
In many ways, though, I’ve found the experience something of a let-down. The proceedings are interminably slow and disjointed; the jury is constantly being sent out (usually to a tiny, airless holding room) while the judge and barristers discuss points of law or the courtroom is rearranged to accommodate witnesses and their various needs. You have to sit through written evidence being read out, sometimes with barristers and witnesses reading out opposing parts of the dialogue provided in witness statements, which can take ages. And it seems that every time we’re building up a bit of momentum, the judge decides we all need a break and everything grinds to a halt. And I’ve learned a number of things about the proceedings that I’ve found very disappointing: firstly that the legal profession isn’t exactly made up of intellectual heavyweights as I’d thought. Secondly, and I’ve found this very disappointing and concerning, that the system is heavily weighted against women, especially in cases of sexual assault.
Both the cases I’ve heard have been sexual assault cases. One concerned the historic sexual abuse of a girl, the second concerned recent sexual assaults on an adult woman. We’re forbidden from discussing a case while it’s going on and we’re forbidden from ever discussing the process of deliberation, or the process by which the jury reaches its verdict. I can, however, (at least I assume I can) discuss general points around the process of prosecuting such awful crimes.
The process begins as follows: The jury is sworn in; not quite the straightforward process it seems as the defendant can reject any jury member he or she doesn’t like the look of. For that reason they send 15 jurors to every trial, three of whom are either rejected or simply not required. The judge then gives the jury a simplified explanation of what the process is going to involve, followed by opening statements from the prosecution and defence barristers, or counsels, as they’re also known. The prosecution then presents its case by presenting evidence. I’ve seen evidence provided in the form of written witness statements, transcripts of police interviews, dvd recordings of police interviews, witnesses providing evidence via video link, on the stand behind screens and on the stand in open court. The prosecution counsel examines each piece of evidence, then the defence counsel has the opportunity to cross examine. Both counsels can then re-examine as they see fit, before we move onto the next piece of evidence. And after the prosecution has presented its case, the defence present theirs, and the process starts again. Then, when both sides have presented their case, the judge sums up and the jury retires to deliberate on its verdict. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
But it hasn’t been anything like so simple in the cases I’ve heard. The judge has regularly interrupted proceedings, either to seek or provide clarification to interject with questions of his own or to hand out thinly veiled bollockings to counsel when they’ve broken the rules. And sometimes these bollockings haven’t been veiled at all, though the jury is sent out on such occasions so we don’t get to hear any of it!
It’s the judge’s summing up that I’ve found most problematic. One point has been laboured above all others, and that is the defendant’s presumed innocence. We’re told, and rightly so, that in order to find the defendant guilty, the prosecution must prove their case beyond doubt. We’re also told, and in cases of sexual assault I’ve found this particularly unhelpful, that the defence, and the defendant, don’t have to prove anything. Two sides of the same coin? Two ways of saying the same thing? No, I don’t think so. And I’ll tell you for why.
In 999 out of every 1000 cases of sexual assault, the victim is a woman and the culprit is a man. And in 999 out of every 1000 cases, there are two people on earth who know the truth of what’s happened. There are two people in the room when the assault happened, if indeed it did happen. And if the judge’s summing up is taken literally, one of those two people is at a terrible disadvantage. And that’s the victim. And the victim’s a woman. Usually.
Bear in mind that I’m under oath not to discuss an ongoing case, nor to discuss a completed case in such a way as to identify the case or any of the protagonists. And I’m also under oath never to discuss what went on in deliberation. But I’d like to give you an example of what I mean so I’ll talk in general about why I’ve come to feel this way about the process. Imagine a woman, a single parent with three daughters, the oldest of whom is ten years old. The woman meets a man, a single man around her own age. They fall in love, quite quickly, and get married. The an moves into the woman’s family home. The eldest daughter is bright as a button, she has a wide circle of friends and her school reports are glowing. She moves from primary school to secondary school, but fails to settle. She fails to make new friends. Her behaviour deteriorates, her schoolwork deteriorates, her relationship with her mother deteriorates. As time goes by she starts drinking, dabbles in drugs, stops attending school and ends up being taken into care. She ends up homeless, living in hostels and B&Bs, before finally getting her life back on track in her mid 20s. It’s at this point that she discloses to her social worker that her mother’s husband began grooming her for sexual abuse from the moment he moved into their family home. She goes to the police and a case is brought before the courts. She tells the police that this man used to buy her presents; just her, not her sisters. Presents of flowers and chocolates. That he used to take her out drinking, telling her mother they were going shopping. That he used to take her to his own mother’s house when his mother was away at her caravan in Wales, and that while they were there he’d rape her. That he did this repeatedly for four years. Of course, he denied everything.
When the case came to court, the jury read the transcript of this police interview. They watched the dvd recording that the police had made of the interview. They also heard the girl, now a 28-year old woman, give evidence via a video link, during which she talked at length about the police interview and the events described therein. She talked about other people who could confirm details of her story, they obviously hadn’t witnessed any assaults but they’d been around at the time and had seen and done things described by the girl in her testimony. but the jury never heard from these people, they were never called to the stand and no evidence of theirs was ever presented.
The jury did hear from the defendant, however. They heard from the man accused of these disgusting crimes. They heard his denials, his explanations of his movements and intentions on the occasions in question. How he used to take the girl to his mother’s empty house, but only because his mother liked the house checked regularly and the girl liked to go with him. The jury never heard from his mother. How he never bought the girl any presents he didn’t also buy for her sisters. How he didn’t think flowers and chocolates were a rather unusual present for a man in his thirties to be buying for a 12-year old girl. The jury never heard from the girl’s sisters, nor her own mother. They were directed by the judge not to speculate on why this was.
At the end, the judge summed up. He laboured the point about the onus being on the prosecution to prove their case and that the defence, and especially the defendant, were not obliged to prove a fucking thing.
My problem with that is as follows: to a lay-person, that doesn’t sound balanced. It can be interpreted that the judge is saying that not only does the defence not have to prove anything, they don’t even have to answer the case. And juries being juries, they’re made up of lay-people. People who think that one side of the argument can only ever carry less weight than the other. The victim’s side. The woman’s side. And such a jury, on hearing a case like this one, might decide that, because the victim’s argument, the woman’s argument, carries less weight, they might decide that they are duty bound to return a verdict of not guilty. They might think the man is guilty. They might believe him to be guilty. But they feel they can’t find him guilty. Because he’s not the culprit, he’s only the alleged culprit. And the allegation can’t be proved beyond doubt because the woman’s argument is worthless.