What Her Majesty's Court Service didn't mention in my jury summons was that my main duty would involve waiting. Waiting to be selected for a trial, waiting in the jury's retiring room, waiting while the prosecution had something photocopied, waiting for the defence barrister to get to the point... It was perhaps no accident that the jury pool assembly room resembled an airport lounge, with rows of wide blue chairs and a canteen selling bad coffee and unsatisfactory sandwiches. My fellow wannabe jurors and I wallowed in enforced passivity like holidaymakers whose flight home had been delayed. During all this inactivity I had plenty of time to ponder: is the right to trial by jury really worth all the fuss?
The Lord Chief Justice's decision last June to allow the first criminal trial without a jury sparked cries that a central pillar of our democracy was crumbling. Lord Justice Judge ruled that the trial of four defendants accused of a £1.75 million robbery at Heathrow airport in 2004 could be heard without a jury, due to the "very significant" danger of jury tampering. It was the first time that the then Home Secretary David Blunkett's controversial 2003 Criminal Justice Act had been put into practice. The act, which allows a trial to proceed without a jury in complex fraud cases or where there is a risk of jury tampering, passed only after several safeguards were added to appease rebel Labour MPs, appalled at this erosion of our ancient right.
For all that, the vast majority of criminal cases are still heard in front of a jury. The ideal of trial by jury is usually discussed in such high-faluting terms that it's easy to forget that juries are made up of 12 normal people who may neither care for nor understand the supposedly sacred duty that falls on their shoulders. Lord Devlin famously argued that trial by jury "is the lamp that shows that freedom lives". That may be so, but the capacity of a lamp to illuminate depends on the bulb one puts in it. Many of the jury system's keenest defenders, I'd wager, spend more time decrying the government's attempts to undermine it than they do rubbing shoulders with a cross-section of potential jurors. The first thing I noticed when I walked into the jurors' room at a Crown Court in an outer suburb of London was a table stacked exclusively with back issues of gossip magazines and popular women's weeklies, the assorted reading material left behind by previous intakes. I immediately wondered whether I would really want a bunch of Heat magazine readers deciding my fate if I were in the dock, before chiding myself for making sweeping assumptions about the readership of such publications, primarily that they don't share my socially liberal views. After all, juries are supposed to be representative of the general public.
The three juries I was selected for turned out to be pretty heterogeneous. Each included people of differing race, class, profession, education and intelligence — and very different levels of engagement in the process. In two of the trials we quickly came to a guilty verdict. But one, in which the accused was an illegal immigrant, was not so straightforward. When it came to deliberating the facts of the case, I was impressed by the detail of some of my fellow jurors' notes, the level of debate and the effort to include everybody in it. But I was also annoyed that only about half of the group seemed interested in, or indeed capable of, contributing much to the verdict.