By Alice Austin
My first thought was great! No work for up to 3 months! I’ll be sitting around all day under the guise of serving my country! Free lunches!
Then I thought about how easily disturbed I am. I couldn’t sleep for 2 weeks after watching The Village which is a 12A. If I’m really honest, I find The Hunger Games a bit much. The Old Bailey is the Central Criminal Court for England and Wales. I wasn’t going to be settling a dispute over a garden fence.
Not that I agree with generalising, but my mum is Jewish and blew the entire thing out of proportion immediately. “Oh ALI what if you get a MURDER and you’ll have to sit through all that EVIDENCE.”
Cheers mum hadn’t thought of that.
On my first day I was nervous. I arrived early at the daunting building opposite Saint Paul’s Cathedral and went through a vigorous security check. I got used to this as I went in and out every day. It helped that the security guards were friendly prison geezers who bode me a cheery welcome every time I passed through. They looked like they’d seen a thing or two. We became good mates.
I spend the first hour in a court room with about 200 other first-day-jurors. We had to watch a series of videos about how serious this jury service business is.
And jury service is serious business. You can go to jail for taking a selfie in court, speaking to a defendant or discussing a case outside the courtroom. As a result jurors are treated a bit like royalty, ushered in and out of lifts by special Jury Managers and escorted to and from court rooms. We had our own special toilet and canteen.
At the time I was bottom of the pile at a PR Agency so being treated with this eery kind of respect was a shock at first. But then I got used to it and allowed myself to feel self-important. A few others clearly felt the same way; chests were very puffy in the Jury Room.
So anyway, day 1. I was ushered up to the Jury Room by a buxom Jury Manager called Carol. It looked like a waiting room at a doctors. There was a canteen at the back where we could spend our £5.65 daily allowance. It was a Monday. Clusters of people sat together at different tables, chatting and laughing confidently. These people were currently serving on a jury, had potentially been doing it for a month or more and so were good mates with their fellow jurors. I was fascinated by them and wondered what horrors they had seen so far; what traumas they were masking with their laughter. The rest of us sat awkwardly like it was the first day of school.
After 15 minutes a middle-aged woman with curly brown hair stood with a microphone in front of the room. She cleared her throat.
“Can the following people please make their way to Court Room 4.” The Jury Room waited with baited breathe. The woman paused like Ant and Dec reading out the winners on the X Factor.
An over-weight, suited bald man stood up with zeal. Paul Steadman reported for duty. He marched out of the Jury Room, our eyes followed him jealously and then snapped back to the woman with the microphone.
A woman stood up looking scared, gathered her stuff self-consciously and followed Paul Steadman out of the room. This continued until about 16 names had been called.
“The rest of you will have your names called out over the course of this morning, please be patient.”
I had Anna Karenina and Tinder to keep me busy as I waited but it didn’t stop my imagination from running wild. What would happen when we got into court? What did it mean when we got there? Were we going to be locked in a courtroom and not allowed to leave until we’d solved the crime? Shit. What if I get a rape? I couldn’t handle that. I’d be alright with a murder, but I really can’t handle a rape.
Every time the woman picked up the microphone the entire room would drop everything and stare at her apprehensively. It was all so strange. I felt slightly disappointed every time my name wasn’t called out until
“ALICE AUSTIN. Please make your way down to Court Room 9.”
It felt like she’d said it louder than everyone else but that was probably my imagination.
I waited outside the court with about 15 other nervous people. The Jury Manager ushered us in. I’m short so it took a while for me to hustle to the front and adjust to the scene inside.
We stood in a small, dark courtroom with no windows. All the walls were obscured by empty wooden seats except for the wall directly in front of us. This was occupied by a judge seated on a high throne, and next to him was the defense box protected by thick glass. In there stood two scraggly middle-aged men. I could just make out that one had long, thin hair and the other was almost bald. They were looking down.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury,” the judge addressed us. “Before you stand two men who have been charged with 2 counts of first degree murder.”
A murmured gasp from the people around me. My stomach dropped.
“The trial is estimated to run for approximately 6 weeks. Unless a valid reason is given, you must accept this trial as your civilian duty. Now I will ask for anyone who is unable to complete their jury service to come forward with an explanation.”
A woman on my left pushed forward and walked up to the judge. She stood with her chin pointed up to the sky and said audibly “I have flights booked in 3 weeks time.”
“Very well. This lady will not be able to complete this trial and may be excused.”
Another woman walked up to the judge. “I’m a freelancer and I’m not being compensated for my time here.”
“I’m afraid that is not a valid reason. You must serve on this jury.” The woman walked back with her head down. I felt sorry for her.
Then I remembered that I had flights booked in 3 weeks time. I was going to see my cousin in Inverness. I boldly walked up to the Judge and told him.
“Yes very well you are excused from this trial.”
I left the court room and went back up to the jury room in a daze. Shit. What had I just done? I didn’t want to go through the trauma of a murder trial but there was no denying it would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I spent the rest of the morning angry with myself until I got dismissed at midday and was told to come back at 9am tomorrow. I promised myself I would take the next trial I was given, whatever it was.
When I arrived in the Jury Room that morning I waited apprehensively for the announcements. I was worried I wouldn’t be called up again – the trials here usually last 2 months, not 3 weeks.
“Would the following jurors please follow your Jury Manager to the lift..” The woman with the microphone again. Third down the list this time “ALICE AUSTIN. Please make your way to Court Room 4.”
Carol the Jury Manager, dressed in long black court robes, hustled me and 13 others to the special jury lift. As we went down Carol said “Better than being in the office eh?” I knew she probably made that joke every day but God I liked Carol.
We got to the second floor and Carol ushered us like a mother hen down an open, cavernous hall. The floor was made of huge slabs of marble and the walls held large ancient paintings of old Lords and judges. The ceilings were impossibly high and decorated lavishly in gilded patterns. Carol was right, it was better than the office.
It took about ten minutes to get from the Jury Room to Court Room 4. Carol went in while we waited outside. After a few minutes she came out. “We’ll wait here for a short while.” I tried to read her face but it was the same as before – round and happy.
As we waited outside Court Room 4 I took the opportunity to study my fellow jurors faces. The group was diverse. There were 7 women and 7 men, everyone seemingly from a different culture and background. Some of us perched on a hard wooden bench and some leaned faux-casually against the wall. We didn’t communicate except for apprehensive facial expressions whenever we made eye contact. Over the next three weeks I would get to know more about this group of complete strangers than I knew about members of my own family.
After thirty minutes Carol went in again. She poked her head round the door and signalled us inside. Court Room 4 was big and bright. I noticed people in robes sitting on the benches – the lawyers. The judge sat omnipresent on his thrown, fully-wigged, peering down at us through tiny glasses. The defendant box was directly to my left, three men stood inside. I inadvertently made eye contact with one and looked away immediately. Shit. This is hairy.
“Ladies and gentleman of the jury, thank you for your patience.” The judge addressed us in a ludicrously posh accent. “Before you stand three men. They have been accused of” The judge glanced down at some papers, a lawyer coughed. I felt like the defendants were staring straight at me. Don’t be a rape, don’t be a rape, don’t be a rape.
“They have been accused of armed robbery.” Thank Christ. “The trial will last 3 weeks. Come forward now if you have a valid reason not to take part in this trial.”
Two people approached the judge and he excused them. “Ladies and gentleman we will now begin the process of swearing you in.”
After a refreshingly brief and democratic discussion on who preferred which Holy Book, we each stood in the witness box. Most of the jurors laid one hand on the Bible while a beaming Carol stood several feet lower. She told them to say “I swear by almighty God that I will faithfully try the defendants and give a true verdict according to the evidence.”
I felt too weird with that so I went the atheist route: “I solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully try the defendants and give a true verdict according to the evidence.”
We got sent home at 11am that day and told to return the next morning. (I had so much spare time during Jury Service that I watched Breaking Bad from start to finish. I consider it to be one of the happiest periods of my life.)
The next morning Carol accompanied us into the lift. “There’s a juicy one going on in Court Room 12.” She told me, delighted. “Pop your head in if you get the chance.”
As we waited outside Court Room 4 I got chatting to a woman on my jury. Naomi was from Ireland. Late-thirties, good-looking and well-dressed. I wasn’t surprised to find out she sold jewellery on the shopping channel. “It’s ridiculous that all you need to get out of this is buy a 20euro ticket to Dublin.”
We were signalled into Court Room 4 and filed in to two rows of six chairs. We had to sit in the same seat every day, as did everyone else in the court. Each time we came in it felt like the entire thing had just been paused.
“Ladies and gentleman the trial will begin by hearing all evidence from Prosecution.”
“Thank you My Lord.” The prosecution lawyer stood up. She wore long black robes and her hair was covered in a wig. She was ridiculously smug.
“The three men who stand before you have been accused of the armed robbery of a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken in North London.”
R u joking.