So everyone's talking about juries. Specifically - and as a result of - the jury in the Vicky Pryce trial, who asked the judge such questions as "Is this the way to Amarillo?" and "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"
It's true that serving on a jury gives you a fascinating insight into both the judicial system and British society. I've been called up for jury service just once, but during that time served on two juries. And here are five things I learned from the experience:
1. The loudest, poshest person will make themselves foreman
And before you ask: no, it wasn't me. I am, after all, only middle class with parents from working class backgrounds. No, the two people who made themselves foremen on my juries - and they definitely made themselves foremen rather than be chosen by everyone else - were the loud, upper-class ones. In this sense, a jury really is a microcosm of Britain: everyone's a bit shy and embarrassed about being forward or too pushy, but the upper classes a) aren't afraid of behaving like that and b) are very good at bossing the peasants around.
2. It's surprising how many people in Britain can't read
On each jury, we had a juror who was illiterate. Not because English wasn't their first language, but because they simply couldn't read, or at least read very well. According to the Literacy Trust, around 16% of adults in England - that's 5.2million people - can be described as "functionally illiterate", as my fellow jurors were. If your day-to-day experience doesn't involve you knowing or working with someone with literacy problems, it's an eye-opener to realise how relatively common it is.
3. Britain is still divided along race and class lines
In both of my trials, the man in the dock was black, the policemen testifying against him were white, the barristers were white and posh, and the judge presiding over it all was white, posh, male and old. And as if this all wasn't depressing enough, one white, male, middle-aged juror cheerfully told me that he "didn't mind the men" - it was black women he "couldn't stand". In Britain, we talk of being tried by 'a jury of your peers' - but I'd never thought of a bloke like this as one of my peers. Turns out he is.
4. You can make a friend for life in a fellow juror
I got chatting to a woman on one of my juries - well, there is a lot of downtime when you're hanging around waiting to be called for a trial - and we stayed in touch once the whole experience was over. Nearly 10 years later, she is still one of my closest, dearest friends. The most amazing part? We didn't even agree on the verdict.
5. It's not a perfect system - but I can't think of a better one
Is everyone on a jury intelligent, reasonable and fair? No - but then not everyone is. Is it a perfect system? No - but can you suggest a better one? Because in randomly selecting people from all walks of life, the jury system as it stands is truly representative of our society, with all its (and all our) faults. And surely people should be tried by their society - and not, as Peter Hitchens and others have suggested this week, by a sub-section of that society deemed intelligent/wise/educated enough to try us. Besides - who ever heard of two lay judges becoming friends for life?!
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