Intended for healthcare professionals

Careers

A juror’s verdict

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39435.756794.7D (Published 12 January 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:s11
  1. Wendy Lou Noble, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist (wnoble@wnoble.karoo.co.uk)
  1. 1Women and Children’s Hospital, Hull

Abstract

Wendy Lou Noble is called to the box

I recently received a summons for jury service, and I viewed the official document with total disgust. I could think of no greater waste of my time and thought that it must be a mistake; surely as a doctor I was exempt? It was not a mistake, though, and exempt I most certainly was not.

Increasingly difficult to avoid

Changes to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have made it increasingly difficult to avoid jury service. I asked my colleagues and discovered that none had yet served on a jury. Those who had been called had either written fulsome letters to explain why they were indispensable not only to the hospital but also to the universe at large, or else had persuaded colleagues to do this for them. All had been duly excused the evil duty.

I promptly sat down and wrote at length how as the lead clinician for the labour ward my presence was required in the hospital or on call for the safe delivery of the city’s infants, for patient care, or for targets of vital import, and that as a generally good egg I should be excused. The following week I had a response. I opened it and read the standard preprinted reply with a sinking heart. I was not excused, and would still be expected at the local court on the appointed day.

Joke on me

I was met with hilarity at work as one wag asked me why the accused should despair when he was informed that he was to be tried by a jury. Sourly I asked to be enlightened. “Well, it means you are going to have your destiny decided by 12 people, all of whom were too thick to get out of jury service.” The joke was truly on me for not being clever enough, it seemed.

I informed my medical director and personnel department. A multi-million pound debt focuses senior trust minds on looking after the pennies, and it was suggested that I could have unpaid leave. This is in fact entirely lawful, because although employers are obliged to release staff for jury service, they are not obliged to pay them during their absence. The good employer will of course do so, recognising the financial hardship that may otherwise befall a loyal member of staff.

Not out of pocket

In my case, it was pointed out to me that I would be paid £29.98 a day by the court. This seemed a poor exchange for 12 programmed activities per week. I went to the BMA, who suggested that jury service should be viewed as special leave and should therefore be remunerated. After much further discussion with the trust, I was relieved to hear that despite being stupid, I was not after all going to be out of pocket for my NHS income as well as for my private practice.

The trust next suggested that I should pay back all the on call that I would be missing. Once again the BMA had to intervene. I was spared the evil of accumulated on call, as special and sick leave do not require on call to be prospective. These issues were resolved, but not in the first instance by the trust, and having made as good a deal as I could on the matter, I waited for the great day to arrive.

Waste of time

On the first morning I turned up with the various items of ID (passport, driving licence) that had been requested and was shown to the jurors’ coffee room. The Crown Prosecution Service does not provide comfortable armchairs, and the time passed slowly. I sat with a pile of journals that I thought I might catch up on, and waited to be called. I eavesdropped on a couple sitting near me as a man complained that this was his second week and that as yet he had not been called. I mentally fumed at the waste of time that two weeks in that waiting room would mean to me—the backlog of patients, the drop in activity, and the potential effect on my next appraisal. We were told at 1 pm that we could leave the building but must return at 2 pm.

I wandered into town and had the novelty of an uninterrupted lunch, while also reading the newspaper. On my return I was called as one of 18 potential jurors, and ushered into a courtroom. The judge then stated that this would be a three-week trial and my heart sank. He asked each of us in turn if we could do the three weeks. My heart rose as I heard successful pleas for escape made by others on the slimmest of grounds. On cue, I explained how two weeks were fine but the third would be very difficult and how patient care would suffer. The judge looked down on me and smiled. Quietly he informed me that he understood my problem, but that nevertheless I would serve as required.

Guilty until proved innocent

I took my seat as juror number 12, and a murder case was outlined for the court. The defendant sat with his head bowed as his alleged actions were detailed for all to hear. Later, after the opening address, we left the courtroom and I heard a cultured voice say, “Well what do you expect from a person like that, of course he’s guilty, people like that always are.” “Yes,” replied someone, “That’s the trouble with council estates, they breed trouble, and he deserves all he gets.”

I felt instantly irritated, and thought it would be a good idea at least to hear the evidence, being under the impression that the man was still innocent as there was as yet no proved case against him. It was at this moment that the defendant became to me a vulnerable human. I felt that it was terribly important that I do my utmost to ensure that if he was innocent I should not be party to any assumption of guilt that his appearance or the opening address had raised. My resentment towards the entire process ended at that moment.

Questions to the judge

Over the next few days various witnesses, including a forensic scientist and a pathologist, were called. I was surprised at the limited evidence and medical information made available. This was not CSI Miami, Silent Witness, or anything of the kind; Quincey MD and Columbo would have turned in their graves. The prime witness was adamant he had seen the events from his front door, but according to the aerial photographs he had been behind a hedge, a bank of trees, and around the corner of a house over 100 metres from the scene of the crime. Neither of the barristers queried his story. The jury, however, is allowed to put written questions to be answered. I kept up a stream of written questions to the judge for expansion and clarification as numerous witnesses were called. I took notes, looked at aerial photographs, and examined the assorted weapons from the incident that were in the jurors’ bundle.

Initially, I felt that my fellow jurors must view me with irritation, but in the end every witness was being questioned not just by the prosecution and defence barristers but also by a stream of written questions from the jury as a whole. This became an academic exercise for all, a puzzle in which all the pieces counted.

Financial hardship

Away from the jury room, I learnt more about my fellow jurors, and was humbled to hear how the self-employed lorry driver was losing his income, and how a nurse from my own trust was on unpaid leave as she had been told the trust was not prepared to cover her salary. The few pounds paid by the court in no way covers this, and jury service does result in financial hardship for any juror not paid by an employer. I suggested to the nurse that if the trust was paying a consultant then surely she also was entitled to her salary. In the end, with that as a comparator, her salary was paid. I was told by my clinical director, however, that my doing jury service had raised issues to be reviewed, as the trust could not afford to pay staff in future. I think the BMA will have a view on this.

After the verdict was passed, the court heard that the defendant was a family man with no prior record, who might with a less challenging jury team have become the victim of preconceived individual prejudices. I was at the end content that I had made a valid contribution to a just verdict, and that my medical knowledge helped. Also important was the team discipline that went into analysing the information presented, eliminating all but proved fact and reaching the truth beyond reasonable doubt.

Protected lunchtime

Despite my initial disgust, I would be delighted to serve as a juror again. Quite apart from being a mental challenge, for three weeks I had a protected lunchtime, a sensible working day, and time to reflect on my own life, which normally I get only when lying on a beach. Finally, I would hope that if ever I were in the dock, there would be someone on the jury with enough brains to ensure that I get a fair hearing, but too thick to get out of doing jury service.

Take home advice for doctors

  • Acknowledge the court summons. Not doing so is contempt and subject to a fine at the very least

  • Inform your trust in writing that you are requesting special leave, and ask them to acknowledge in writing that this will be on full pay and that you will be excused on-call duties for the duration of your service. Court cases can sometimes go on for months and you will not know whether this will affect you personally until selected for a jury. Your trust might even try to renege on salary if the case drags on

  • Ask your accountant to provide an estimate of lost earnings from your private practice, and include this with your claim to the court to allow you the daily allowance towards lost earnings, which increases with time served in court. For further information see www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk/docs/infoabout/juryservice/

  • Allowances%20England%20July07.pdf

  • The court will pay for public transport but not for mileage and parking

  • Subsistence is provided

  • Rarely (if ever) will you be sequestered in a hotel for the duration of a case

  • You can take laptops or books with you, and lockers are provided. Be prepared to spend time just sitting around, because even during the trial you may be sent out for variable periods of time

  • Log the time on your consultants’ hours diary. It counts as work from 9 am to 5 pm even if you are not called, because you still have to be available. Add in the travelling time, because the court is not your usual place of work

  • Enjoy the experience—it is so rare in this day and age that you can step out of your usual life and do something so completely different and worth while.

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