9 January, 2015

The jury’s out

Most people don’t relish the thought of a break in their routine to sit in in a court on the chance of being selected to be selected for jury duty (ref. the double selection process of jury service).  We squirm when we’re chosen.

One of the things I did over the holiday was to begin to re-watch Boston Legal.  There was a line in one of the episodes about the importance of working to the jury when preparing for a trial, for they – the jury – ultimately make the decision on guilt.

So why is it that those of us who are summoned do not take this seriously and consider it only troublesome?

This past year I was summoned, went along, and hit the jackpot on the first day of my week of service.  Before the newly selected jury was dismissed to select a foreperson, the judge gave guidelines for how the jury should view the trial.  These guidelines proved very useful in our deliberation after the evidence was presented and it was helpful that I took notes.  The other members of the jury selected me as foreperson.

Something struck me after the evidence was presented and the jury was in deliberation, after the fifth round of casting our votes.

Our decision had to be unanimous.  The first secret ballot we took had just over half leaning one way.  It was at this point that indications from some jurors were that this was wasting their time, they’d expected the outcome to be obvious.  There were people who had assumed to be out in a couple of hours to get back to work, lunch dates were threatened as there were an unknown number of days to serve this issue.  They wanted to get back to the known.  They hadn’t planned to be selected so their calendars were filled.

After each ballot, we took the opportunity to talk about our rationale for voting, which formed arguments for and against guilt.  The second vote changed and the third even more.  In the end we had a few people who weren’t sure – they could see bits of both sides.  They obviously had doubts.  This is where the judge’s guidelines and the concept of reasonable doubt, which the judge defined well for us, are useful.  We had tools to help us with this decision.  This is also where communication, persuasive argument, and negotiation are called upon.

One of the doubters said ‘I’ll just vote along with the rest to help end this’.  I suggested that we wanted each voter to feel comfortable with their vote, not to take it lightly, that we each had a moral duty to carefully consider this.  Others disagreed – they felt it wasn’t important enough, was a waste of time.  It may have been a frivolous case, but to the defendant and the plaintiff this was serious and our decision would impact on both, whichever way it went.  And that impact would reach to their friends and families and, yes, even their workmates.

I’m happy to be out of the pool for two years, but appreciated the opportunity to experience our justice system this way.  I appreciated jury service as a way to practice certain skills within a system that I thought provided clear guides for us (at least our judge did).   It was a glimpse of others’ lives that might be well outside our own experience.  Whether you’re the foreperson or not, you have the opportunity to use certain skills during the process and if you reflect on the experience you realise those skills and the part you play in our democratic system.

This could be a valuable example of some discipline-generic skills in your next job interview.

Here’s the NZ jury service website.

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Advice, Reflection