News and Comment

Public deliberation in the dock: reflections of a juror

Friday 6 March 2015

It was not without a hint of anxiety that I arrived at my local crown court in mid-February having received a stern looking summons two months before requesting my appearance in court. It was my time to carry out the civic duty of sitting for two weeks as a juror.

And certainly there was a lot of sitting. As a researcher in the Engagement Team at OPM I have participated in numerous deliberative events and believe in the importance of involving the public in decision-making processes, so here I had the opportunity to observe why the jury trial is indeed one of the key deliberative events staged in society. It is a unique example of a shrouded state process opened up to lay members on a daily basis, providing a first-hand experience of how justice is delivered – thankfully correcting my previous understandings based predominantly on crime dramas.

However, when I first arrived in the ‘jury assembly area’ with around 150 others I couldn’t have been the only one to have questioned the expense and efficiency of it all.

There was a lot of waiting around, court proceedings were slow, and above all else the cost of paying jurors’ lost income and expenses alone, I thought, must be astronomical. These criticisms and others have been levelled at the jury trial in the past: public deliberations have been considered too expensive, participants unqualified to make important decisions, outcomes biased by social structures as well as the existing prejudices of those taking part. In a parallel fashion, other examples of public deliberation including Fishkin’s Deliberative Poll and the public dialogues championed by Sciencewise face the same critiques. Put simply: why should we not just let the experts do what they do best?

As the week progressed I was assigned to a trial, listened to the evidence, and eventually entered the deliberation phase. My initial scepticism lifted. Sitting at a table as a participant rather than as a facilitator was a new experience for me. I had earlier wondered whether a balanced discussion could take place without descending into chaos in the absence of ground rules, a tight agenda, and an external mediator – but my concerns were unwarranted. A foreman was decided upon before discussions started and was able to steer the conversation fairly, affording all members of the jury the time to share their thoughts and reach an independent decision. Participants were bound by the weight of responsibility and sense of moral duty conferred by the oath taken at the beginning of the trial. No individual dominated and the defendant was given a fair hearing. Discussions also helped jurors to absorb evidence; when listening to high volumes of information twelve heads are better than one. Likewise, individual observations and perspectives helped the group as a whole gain an objective view of the case in order to reach a consensus either unanimously or through a majority verdict.

My experiences are supported by wider evidence. A 2010 study for the Ministry of Justice found that juries are a fair, effective and efficient way of trying defendants. It found 89% of juries reach a verdict, and only 0.6% of juries are discharged for not coming to a decision. Research from America has also demonstrated that in around 80% of criminal cases jurors and judges will reach the same decision (Kalven & Zeisel 1966). Additional research suggests that after a trial jurors increase their participation in civic life, including voting more frequently and engaging in community issues.

Similar arguments support the more frequent use of public deliberations in society more widely, particularly in providing the general public with the opportunity to interrogate policy decisions otherwise protected by the fortified bunker of Westminster. Not only is this in line with the government’s open policy-making agenda outlined in the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan – the wider use of such participatory events could be the catalyst to revive public engagement in the political process, giving citizens the platform to influence decision making outside the ritual of voting on election day.

Overall my experience of being a juror demonstrated the value and potential of giving members of the public a chance to sit together and deliberate on issues of importance. Integrating deliberative methods more widely in state systems could produce similar fair, effective, and efficient results, and prove to members of the public that their views DO matter.

For now the jury is out.