Anthony Bailey (anthonybailey) wrote,
Anthony Bailey

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Court costs

I was recently called to do jury service at Edinburgh's High Court of Justiciary.

Said court is for relatively serious cases (the one going on in the courtroom I wasn't in was a murder trial) and so the arrangements are quite generous in the number of members of the public that get called. Fifty of us were supposed to attend, and fifteen would then be chosen by ballot for the jury, with the defense being able to ask for some of that number to be replaced if they didn't like the look of them. (Forty-six potential jurors actually turned up. They can fine non-attendees, although I don't know if they actually do that in practice.)

I served on the jury on a couple of less significant criminal cases back in England when I was previously called for such duty at almost the earliest opportunity; the citation arrived about a week after I turned eighteen. They were rather more economic with the jurors; pretty much everybody called ended up serving on at least one case before their service was over, and also it's twelve to a jury down there. There are other differences too; in England I seem to remember a quorum of ten of the twelve was required in order to convict. In Scotland it's a simple majority of the fifteen, but the standards of evidence seem higher (my understanding is that you don't even admit evidence unless it is corroborated; two sources are required.) Also there's the anomalous third verdict of "not proven" to go along with "guilty" and "not guilty"; although it has exactly the same consequences for the accused as a "not guilty" verdict, perhaps the wording of it helps people to more happily exercise reasonable doubt.

I found the experience of that first encounter with the judicial system to be very rewarding. A group of very average human beings were given a pretty important responsibility, and they treated it seriously, doing their best to fulfill everything expected of them. We listened to the experts in law and other domains, we discussed earnestly but respectfully, and we came to our own considered and consensual decision. It confirmed my hopes that the everyday person had a sense of civic pride and when push came to shove could be trusted to try to do what was right; justice was at least seen to be done by this young man.

But one data point isn't very many, and perhaps I'm more cynical now. So, I was interested to see how it would turn out this time. I was previously called in Edinburgh some time back, but I was then temporarily off the electoral register, which the small print on the back of the form seemed to imply meant I had to decline. This time all was in order and work isn't any busier than normal, so it seemed time to be dutifully civic once more.

The High Court, in Lawnmarket, is pretty impressive - at least, when you enter. There is a grand atrium, and a huge space outside the courtrooms, all echoey marble. The actual courtroom was another matter. The potential jurors squeezed into the public gallery, basically a set of pretty much exactly fifty low-grade cinema seats crammed up against a low glass partition separating the public off the court itself, which in turn reminded me of the overly cramped office space at work. Definitely functional rather than grand, or even comfortable.

Although we were then kept waiting without explanation long enough to make people some combination of nervous and irritable, when the clerk of the court appeared he turned out to be very good at his job. He joked gently and explained things carefully and exactly, in a friendly fashion but without undermining the seriousness of where we were. Having gone over the basics, at around ten o'clock he informed us there was a final matter of law to work out before the case could begin, so could we wait ten minutes. He returned twenty-five minutes later (noting that we should probably apply about that factor to any estimate of waiting time we given - that this was the norm in court) and apologised for a further complication, so could we all take a break and return at noon?

Trusting that this didn't really mean two o'clock, I went and drank some coffee with an ex-miner and occasional union man called Jimmy. Nice bloke. Like travel delays, jury duty is probably worthwhile just for forcing random pairs of people to talk for a bit.

Anyway, when we got back it turned out that (not unexpectedly) the problems hadn't been resolved, so I could go back to work for the day.

So, we returned the following morning. This time the judge and counsels, defendant, etc. were all in attendance. Now, even though the case in question will still be sub judice and I guess technically court was underway at this point, we were still in the public gallery rather than serving formally as jurors, and nothing relevant to the charges per se was discussed, so I think it's fine to give a full account of what happened next. It doesn't reflect well on everybody involved, so I should disclaim that I've probably got some details wrong in said account. The longer quotations are paraphrases and I may even manage to misrepresent some of the parties completely - so please pinch appropriate salt whilst reading. That having been said...

We learned pretty quickly what the delay the previous day had been about. Somehow everybody else (the judge and court staff, witnesses, jurors, defence and most of the prosecution side) had known that the case was scheduled to start, but not the senior counsel for the prosecution, who had been blissfully unaware we were all waiting. The judge demanded an explanation be given to the court and the jurors for what had happened, but the counsel vehemently denied all responsibility for the miscommunication. Perhaps over-vehemently.

The stereotypically gruff judge sternly told her she was being "very cheeky." It seemed to me the parties were jockeying for position at the start of the case; and I vaguelly remembered something similar from that previous time I'd been on a jury. The judge in that case took the very first opportunity she had been offered to stamp her seniority on things (some trivial lapse in etiquette or procedure), and did so in a rather over the top way. It passed unremarked and nothing like it happened again. I figure maybe this is a regular game; these people have pre-determined roles in a hierarchy, but they haven't necessarily worked together before and some of what will happen over the next few days will depend on force of character and the minutiae of what one can get away with. So perhaps this is a traditional opening dance.

But if so, there was too much stepping on toes on this occasion. The judge admonished the prosecution counsel; he wasn't satisfied with her explanation, and she was being disrespectful in their exchanges by interrupting him. She apologised for any breach of protocol but wasn't prepared to back down; it wasn't her fault, and she'd like to speak to... oh, I didn't catch it, some court official or other. (Courts are sufficiently formal that I dread to think how convoluted the complaints procedures must be.) The judge was dismissive; they'd resolve this at a later time if necessary, but for now she was just delaying the court further.

She wasn't satisfied with this, and said as much. "You're being cheeky again, young lady" exclaimed the judge, which rather set her up for the point she was trying to make: "I don't think so, your honour. You've seriously undermined my credibility in front of potential jurors."

The judge hemmed and hawed and then said he'd like to take a short break. On return, he offered what I think was as close as I can imagine such a figure ever coming to an admission that whoever the fault had originally been with, he'd perhaps mishandled things. "My intention at the start of this session was to procure an explanation for yesterday's delay, one which I felt you should hear, since that delay affected you. In practice this has led to your hearing an exchange that might have been better conducted away from you as potential jurors on this case. You may be unimpressed with the system as you have observed it today, and the following may not help change your minds on that, but... I will not risk prejudicing the case of the Advocate" (formally, prosecutions are brought by the Lord Advocate; the counsel is acting as the Advocate's deputy) "and therefore I do not think that any of you should serve as jurors in this court. We'll return and restart the case with new candidate jurors on Monday morning; you should all consider yourselves released from jury service."

So. Many are called. None are chosen.

I can't fault the resolution, and I know how things can spin out of control, so I didn't end up titling this entry Contempt of court. But, wow, that really does seem as if it might have been quite an expensive lack of people skills...
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