‘I read an entire novel while waiting for a call that never came’

Image above: Southwark Crown Court; image Buildington

Jury service can be shocking and traumatising, it can be interesting, but it can also be very dull

There is a mystique about jury service. To those of us who have never had the call there is a slight sense of being overlooked, of missing out on an opportunity that might have been. I realise I am romanticising this. To most busy people it is just a nuisance to be got through when they have run out of excuses not to do it.

Jenny de Montfort did jury service recently and has written us a guest blog about it.

Guest blog by Jenny De Montfort on doing her civic duty

When the letter from HM Courts and Tribunal Service drops through your letter box it can elicit a sense of dread or enthusiasm or perhaps a bit of both.

I thought of the cases friends had told me about. The jewel thief dressed like Zorro with a wide brimmed hat and flowing cape. Apparently, he would lean against the counter with his cape draped over the display cases and clear the jewels out with his other hand.  He was caught red handed on the cctv but even then, the jury were loath to convict him as he was such a charmer. I can’t but think he must model himself on David Niven.  Another friend had sat through a teenage murder case and needed therapy afterwards.

I wasn’t at all sure what I felt about it. However, I showed up on the due date on the last Monday in January at what sounded like a fantastic address: Southwark Crown Court at 1 English Grounds off Battle Bridge Lane SE1. Sadly, the building does not live up to its address and is definitely ready for some redecoration.

Security is very tight, rather like an airport, although unlike an airport you can bring in liquids as long as you take a sip from the receptacle in front of the security guard. It is rather comical especially when it’s hot coffee!  The induction takes time too. A staff member gave a spiel in a humorous tone that basically said we had no choice and we would just have to do as we were told.

Monday was so dull. I read an entire novel while waiting for a call that never came. It was rather like sitting in a dismal airport lounge with a delayed flight and no idea when it might take off. We couldn’t even wander downstairs to the coffee station. It was off limits as the witnesses and court staff use it. Coffee had a service charge as the staff have to carry orders up the stairs. The view is pretty amazing with HMS Belfast blocking the Gherkin and other office blocks behind and then if you crane your neck you can see the Tower of London.

I was put on call for the next day but was to report back on the Wednesday. Arriving at the court I was thrilled to see a photographer with a long lens. Maybe I’d be on a celebrity case. I was more prepared for the waiting game and chatted to a cheerful group that had been on a case together since August. They announced cheerfully they had given each other secret Santas.

My name was eventually called and about fifteen of us trooped up to the courtroom. Twelve of us were sworn in and then it was lunchtime so we trooped out again. This was to be a regular pattern and a running joke that as soon as were called it would be time for a break. I had a super group. Probably half under thirty. As we couldn’t talk about the case, we had to find other topics. One man was justifiably cynical as his brother had been a postmaster who had been prosecuted by the Post Office. He had even brought a wheelie bag in with him to court, so sure he was to be incarcerated.

Our case was about a young man saying he was robbed by knifepoint. It was at a busy pub in Soho. The prosecutor was rather chaotic and even managed a nap on the Friday. The defence was impressive and made us realise that the man was lying about something. This was when we had a stroke of luck as a smart juror sent a message to the judge just before we were about to be sent to deliberate.

It was if a stick of dynamite had been given to the judge and he sent us out immediately saying we would need to come back on Monday as he needed to talk to the defence.

It turned out that the clever chap had picked up on some of the defence’s cross examination that suggested the victim had bought drugs that had turned out to be just grass. This changed everything.

It had been weird how the victim had said the defendant was threatening but yet had walked with him to the cashpoint for money although he couldn’t say what he needed the cash for. He had sworn on the Bible he didn’t take drugs.  Added to which, he had not said anything about a knife until he had realised his mobile phone had gone. I would surmise that he was rather charmless and so angry that he had bought fake drugs that he fabricated the knife story. It seemed so awful as we have such a problem with knife crime that to fabricate it seemed doubly dreadful.

It was surreal as we all felt that although the defendant was clearly a thief there was absolutely no evidence it was robbery. The fact that the victim had lied so blatantly to us did not help as the sympathy was definitely for the defendant.  Friends tell me this is not unusual as some men can fabricate worse crimes just to “big” themselves up.

We chose the savvy chap to be the foreman and he clearly stated that we found the defendant guilty of theft on both charges, the money and the phone, but we did not believe there was a case for robbery.

The Judge thanked us but hurried us out of the court so we never heard the sentencing.

On the morning of our deliberation we arrived to a packed waiting room.  Ninety names were called as they were looking for twelve jurors for a seventeen-week case and another twelve for a seven-week case. I was so impressed that most people took it with a gentle humour. The only problem is that whereas the short cases have a diverse age range, the longer cases tend to be universally middle aged as they can make themselves available more easily.

I never found out who the photographer was waiting for.

Jenny de Montfort lives in Bedford Park

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