I have recently completed two weeks of jury service at a Crown Court in Kent. Two months previously, as I was looking through my boring post, which mainly consisted of a bank statement and unwanted takeaway menus, I saw an ominous envelope with 'Crown Court' visible through the little paper window.
I felt an immediate surge of fear; had I been caught speeding in my 1997 Ford Fiesta? Not likely. What else could it possibly be? Tearing open the envelope, I pulled out a pink letter with 'Jury Summons' printed in big letters.
An sense of relief was followed by a brief feeling of worry that I might be forced to miss the start of my second year of university, although I was soon calmed by the guide telling me that most people only had to do it for two weeks or less.
Indeed, I only ended up sitting on two short trials; the first being an open and shut case in which we could only give one verdict. The second lasted four days and was far more interesting, if a little distressing. I wish I could say more.
All in all, it was a great experience; not only did I meet lots of interesting people, I also benefited from an insight into our brilliant justice system. Jurors are at the forefront of what makes it so special, the weighty decision of whether or not to find someone guilty rests entirely on their shoulders, and the whole system would collapse without them.
It would therefore be reasonable to think that happy jurors make a good jury. The last thing that those that make up the justice system want - that includes defendants and accusers - is disgruntled members of the jury who may make hasty decisions to do all they can to 'get the hell out of there'.
As a result, providing a comfortable environment for jurors is surely crucial for them to make effective decisions; and this is where I make my criticism. On my first day, it was clear that the support staff - receptionists, ushers, etc - were there to placate any anger people might feel at being forced to come to a stuffy waiting room and sit, regularly for hours at a time, in the hope that you might be called to a trial.
Jane, the receptionist, also immediately made it clear that two large flat-screen TVs were broken, and we would have to make do with a tiny one with no sound. You might think that providing TVs is not the most pressing of issues, but it didn't give off a very good impression. Neither did the fact that both hand-dryers in the ladies toilets were also apparently broken.
Then there was the jokey warning about the extremely old coffee machine, with words of wisdom coming in the form of, "give it a kick". I couldn't help thinking that numerous people must already have complained about the facilities, but clearly to no avail.
Given the fact that reimbursements for food, loss of earnings and travel are made via a claims system, you would think that the former would be entirely free; only jurors used the cafe available to us, so what's the point in charging through the nose (£3 for a sandwich) and then forcing people to claim it back?
After hearing all of the evidence in a case and the Judge's summing up, the jury retires to consider their verdict. You are taken by the usher to a small room with a table, jug of water and plastic cups. Adjoining this room are toilet facilities.
Now, the jury is not allowed to leave this room for any reason during sitting hours, and a lunch menu is brought to the room. It consists of a choice of about three sandwiches, with the side option being a packet of crisps; coffee and tea is an expensive extra. My criticisms of this arrangement are probably quite obvious - tea and coffee should be complimentary and, once again, we shouldn't have to pay for lunch.
I think that the bounds of acceptability are being stretched when you force a group of people to sit in a room, with only limited refreshment and an expensive lunch, and tell them they are performing a vital public duty.
Perhaps most unfair is the fact that self-employed people are often left out of pocket because the expenses system only allows them to claim a limited amount per day to cover loss of earnings. Once again, I am stressing the point that because jury service is inconvenient for people, they should be made to feel that the State respects the fact that they are performing a vital public duty.
I have no idea of the state of facilities at other courts around the country, but what I know for sure is that we want jurors to feel valued and a sense of fulfilment when they re-enter the world of work. What we don't want is for people to leave feeling slightly fed up and out of pocket.