Danny Wallace discovers that jury duty is more than jigsaws
"People are crossing their arms and sighing. 'Why us?' we joke"
There are moments in life where you can rise up and be a hero. Rise up above all others and step forward with truth in your eyes and justice on your mind.
And then there’s the day you get your jury summons and you think, “I don’t really want to be a hero, I want to stay at home and watch The Wright Stuff.”
I am staring at the letter. Court summons. Dates. A £1,000 fine if I don’t turn up. No get-outs.
But I can’t do it. I mean, I can. But I can’t.
Why? Because I’m special. I’m a special case. I’m self-employed. I have children. It’s the summer holidays. I don’t have time. I’m scared. I AM THE ONLY PERSON WITH THESE UNIQUE ATTRIBUTES.
“How do I get out of jury service?” I ask my wife, who used to be a court reporter covering gangsters and organised crime and everything else besides. “There has to be a way!”
But there doesn’t seem to be a NO THANK YOU option, and before I know it the day arrives and I’m walking through a metal detector at a regional crown court, being directed up to a grey room where maybe two dozen other people sit in near-silence.
“Right,” says a woman signing me in. “First thing you need to know about me is my name is Anne D. Now, why am I Anne D?”
I am so on edge at this aggressively put question that I feel I’m supposed to know the answer. I might get jail time for this. Why is she Anne D?
“I’m Anne D,” she says, very seriously, “because there’s someone else who works here who is also called Anne.” Oh.
“Now!” she yells, addressing the room. “This will be BORING. But there are JIGSAWS to your left.”
Everyone stays still. There is no mad rush for jigsaws. I go to buy a coffee but the machine is broken. I sit and nod a hello at my fellow jurors. We are an odd bunch. No one’s been on a jury before. No one’s brought sandwiches.
“I don’t have time for this,” says a young woman. “I hope it’s, like, a day, and that’s it.”
“I’m self-employed,” says a guy. “I’ve got young kids. It’s the summer holidays.”
Most trials last two or three days, says someone else. But you commit to two weeks. You might have to do more than one case, adds another guy. You might get a case that lasts months. You only get five quid for lunch. You have to pay for your own parking. You might spend whole days just sitting about. There’s no café. You will end up doing disappointing jigsaws. People are crossing their arms and sighing. “Why us?” we joke. We are all special!
Then an usher ushers us into the court and it is solemn and quiet and people are wearing wigs. It is clear there will be no more jokes. The judge addresses us and we are handed some paper. We discover why we’re here and what the case is and I’ll tell you what: the importance hits us profoundly.
And it begins in seconds. Evidence is given, witnesses are called and we morph swiftly into a unit. A justice squad. A team of peers who would never have met, who would have just passed each other in streets, oblivious, or sat at different tables in pubs, now bound together by something far bigger than whatever they thought made them so special.
And what is fascinating is how hard we all concentrate.
I know that sounds stupid, but this is a new level. We lean forward, we make notes, we hang on every word, in case somewhere there’s a clue we can find – a momentary slip, an inconsistency, a second of unusual body language. We focus hard, and we think about red herrings, or what we’d have done in similar situations, and we read transcripts and hear from arresting officers and look at photographs.
Because no matter who you think you are, or how busy you might be, or what a hassle it could prove, no one from any walk of life can fail to be struck by just how vital being a cog in a machine like this really is. Or how you suddenly welcome and bear the sheer weight of responsibility randomly placed on your shoulders.
After almost a week, we are put in a room together, our phones locked away, and we argue the case from as many different angles as we can. And when we make our decision, we are exhilarated; thankful that this is how the system works; grateful that ordinary people are involved; pleased it was us.
So this is what I’m saying: your summons might arrive tomorrow, next week, next year. And you will think it’s a hassle; that you want to get out of it; that you are a special case. Forget all that. Instead, plan your sandwiches. The system needs someone like you, and on a smaller scale, so does a stranger soon to sit in a courtroom, whether accusing or accused.
“I wanna do it again,” says the young woman who didn’t have time for this, as outside we say goodbye, more than likely for ever.
Plus, don’t forget. They have jigsaws.
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