The jury is out

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 23 June 2022

I always believed that Magna Carta left us with a most valuable inheritance: the right to trial by jury. Even after learning that legal historians now regard this assertion as fiction, I did so.

But my unbridled enthusiasm for jury trials is struggling to survive a personal encounter with the jury system.

Last week, I was summoned to serve as a juror in the Wellington High Court. I was excited. Finally, I could fulfil my civic duty, make use of my legal training, and help justice prevail.

Well, if only.

Arriving early was my first mistake. Having been summoned to report for duty service at 9am, I expected registration and security procedures to take time. However, the Court was still closed to the public and to jurors at 8.45am. Fortunately, it wasn’t raining.

When I eventually made it into the building, no one wanted to check my ID. Did the Court not want to make sure it was really me?

From there, it only got worse.

Two smaller courtrooms were crowded with approximately sixty potential jurors, all wearing masks and socially distanced. For about half an hour, we waited in solemn silence for further instructions.

A court officer attempted to show us a video containing information for jurors. It took three attempts to get it going, and for unexplained reasons, the video stopped a few minutes before it was over.

Our names were then placed in a raffle drum for the ballot. On turning it, a few papers flew out, so the officer had to start over. Silly me, I thought he had done all this before.

The officer drew thirty names and pronounced most of them correctly. Still, mine was not among them.

Not even an hour into the job, I thought my legal career was already over. How wrong I was.

While the Court went through the process of selecting a jury of 12 out of 30 drawn jurors, the undrawn half remained waiting. In two courtrooms. Without water. Without further information. In silence. For almost two hours.

A fellow unchosen juror behind me fell asleep and started to snore loudly. It was not precisely exciting.

At 11.30am, we had to vacate the room. Not because our job was done but because the room was needed.

Spreading all over in the foyer, we waited further. Another juror put herself on the floor, using her backpack as a pillow. Another one complained enough until they brought us some hot water, tea and instant coffee.

Just after midday, they sent us home for the day. But they told us to keep checking the Court’s website every night just in case they needed us later in the week. The page only got updated on Thursday to tell us they did not.

I still believe in trial by jury.  But not in the efficiency of our justice system.

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