Recently I was summoned to serve as a juror in the Auckland District Court. Being summoned doesn’t mean you will actually get selected, but I did and I served on a trial before the court.
So what is it actually like being a juror?
Well, first up, there is a LOT of waiting. The court system doesn’t run like a finely tuned car manufacturing plant so to cater for all the uncertainties and last minute changes there is a fair amount of waiting around. On the first day I arrived at the District Court and went to the Jury Assembly Area where there were about 200 people waiting in a room. “Please check in” I was told (they did not mean on foursquare). I rummaged through my bag looking for ID – but surprisingly none was needed. My name was taken, matched up to a preprinted label, and then this was popped into the ballot box for later. I did wonder if there was an underground business in jury proxies for those who are summoned but don’t want to attend, and just ask someone else to attend on their behalf? Hmmmm.
As the trials got underway, the ballot box was spun around – just like Lotto – and a selection of names were called out. For a jury of 12, at least 24, but often 30 names were called, and then those people were transported up to the courtroom. I was one of 30 people selected for a trial for an estimated 3 day duration. If you think you need to be excused then you need to have a bloody good reason as the only person who can grant a dismissal at this point is the court judge. A few people in our 30 decided to try running that gauntlet – 3 were excused for varying reasons (eg language difficulties) however the judge refused to accept others and they were told to sit in the jury box. The defence lawyer used 3 of his 4 challenges (those people were sent back to the jury pool) however the prosecution used none of his. These challenges seem to be based solely on appearances – if the legal counsel doesn’t think that you will be supportive of the case (based on how you look), then you can be challenged.
One of the first things I noticed about court is that there are a lot of breaks. No sooner had we been sworn in than it was time for morning tea! Court commences at 10am, morning tea around 11:30am, lunch (for 75 minutes!) at 1pm, afternoon tea at 3:30pm and then finish up between 4:30/5pm. Obviously a lot goes on behind the scenes, but I did think if they could just stretch out the day by half an hour at each end and have a shortened lunch then perhaps the court backlog would be a bit less?
I used to think a jury was made up of 12 people who were too stupid to get off jury service. However from the discussions going on, it was clear that there are less people being excused and the court is taking a harder line with those wanting to get out of their civic duty. Note that you are able to apply to be excused in the 2 years following serving on a jury – but you do need to request this, it doesn’t flag automatically.
For the duration of the trial (which I won’t go into), the jury was treated very well – it was clear that we were guests of the court, and the judge and counsel all made sure the procedures and expectations were explained clearly to us. There is no need to swat up on Boston Legal or CSI before attending a jury, it is all laid out for you.
Once the trial has finished, the important jury deliberation starts. And even more importantly, all mobile devices are removed until the jury reaches a verdict. Think of it as your phone being held hostage! There is no contact with the outside world until you reach a verdict. No biggie you might say, but to reach a unanimous decision may take some time. Our jury was initially spilt 25%/75%, and over the course of 3 hours, 8 people changed their minds. Ever seen 12 Angry Men? It was just like that (kind of). You are locked into the jury room until consensus is reached – if it goes past 9pm then the accommodation provisions are invoked. If one person refuses to agree with the other 11…. well, you could be in for a long night. Tricky for smokers too. Written transcripts of the court evidence was provided and this was extremely helpful. Amongst the 12 of us, we all recalled different things from the witness statements, so being able to review the transcripts of what was actually said was crucial.
Overall, I would recommend serving on a jury. The most frustrating part is the uncertainty of whether you’ll be selected and how long you will need to attend for. Once you are on a trial, then things get interesting and time flies by. It is fascinating seeing the workings of the NZ legal system, and the weight of deciding the future of the accused is not to be sneezed at. You may be surprised to know that over 300,000 people are randomly selected each year to serve on juries in NZ.
At the end of the day, if you were accused of a crime and went to court – who would you like to be sitting in the jury box?
Edited: Found out from @radiomum that actually the counsel has all the information on the electoral roll (such as age, occupation and address), so this can be used for jury challenges too.