Courtroom
17/02/2017
Dieuwe de Boer
Opinion
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Injustice of Jury Duty

Last year, I got my first ever summons for jury duty. Some are excited by this and others view it with dread. I was in the former camp, not out of a special sense of duty, but because I wanted to experience our justice system for myself. I opened the envelope and began to read my summons, what stated that I'd have to be there in January, and it ended with a statement that attendance was compulsory and failure to do so could result in a $1,000 fine.

Jury duty or a fine? That seems a little extreme to me. It means that the members of our jury system are there under threat. For all you know, as a defendant, your twelve peers are only there because if they weren't, they'd be in the defendant's box too. How comforting.

There is some good news though, you'll be financially compensated. The catch? It's a pittance. In fact, it is such a small amount that it would be criminal for anyone but the Ministry of Justice to pay wages like that! Thankfully, many employers continue to pay their employees for attending jury duty, but there is no easy arrangement that can be made with the courts for how long this might be. There is much room for improvement in this arrangement.

There is an old joke, "when you go to court, you are putting your live in the hands of twelve people who weren't smart enough to get out of jury duty." There were many moments where this wise saying came to my mind. On the second day, I talked to a woman who was selected for jury the previous day, but after four hours of deliberation, a jury member went home sick, another remembered that they had a flight to catch the next day, and a third couldn't speak English fluently. The judge disbanded the jury and the surviving members were sent back into the waiting room.

In one of the week's highlights, I had a chance to witness the swearing-in of a jury. The case was expected to take ten days, which was no surprise as it took around fifteen minutes to read the charges and the witness list. Almost everyone called up tried to get excused by the judge, but he didn't let many go, at one point storming out of the courtroom for half an hour while waiting for someone to provide some paperwork for excusal. When the twelve members selected and took a "statement of affirmation" that they would be fair, one of them actually messed it up. This was followed by some more deliberation among the legal counsel, after which the twelfth juror was allowed to retake his affirmation. A man's life was now in the hands of twelve people who would rather have been anywhere else.

The communication from the court was sorely lacking. One day, at 11pm a number of us were told to come back at 2pm. After a few minutes of chaos about who was supposed to come back, the names were clarified, and everyone went home. Those of us who had to return at 2pm were back there promptly. And as soon as we arrived, we were told to go home again because we weren't needed. Another morning, we all turned up, but were told to go home because we were no longer needed. Supposedly, if you had rung in they would have told you, and occasionally an update would be posted on the website. This was not really made clear to us beforehand, especially since the instructions given were explicit: "come back at the specified time," not "you will probably have to come back at the specified time, but ring ahead just in case."

I won't make the same mistakes if I get a jury summons for a second time, but it's far more likely that I will do everything to get out of it, since this experience hasn't really motivated me to come back. The system is convenient for everyone but the jurors, who, like the criminal defendants, are mostly there because they have to be.

Everyone hates jury duty, and it isn't hard to see why: due to unlimited slave labour, there are no incentives to improve the system.