Jury service (4th June 2010)

About a month ago, I received a letter summoning me to attend jury service at the District Court on Ballance St for the week beginning 31st May. Having lived in NZ for almost 9 years, this was the first time I’ve been summoned for jury service – I’ve never been to jury service before! What is involved and how does it work? What am I expected to do as a juror? This is all new and very interesting me! Another new experience for me to blog about :)

The jury list is made up by random selection from the electoral rolls in the Court area – there sure ain’t any mistake selecting me then as I am on the Wellington City electoral roll. You can be fined if you do not attend jury service though if you have a valid reason for not attending, you may be excused at the Court’s decision. I had to ring up the Jury Answerphone the weekend before my first day of jury service to find out what time I needed to report at the District Court on Monday morning – it was just a recorded message and over the course of the week, I had to ring the number after 6pm each day to find out whether I had to go in the next morning. As part of our service to the community, the Court reimburses the attendees for any public transport (taxi not included) and/or parking costs, and for each half day session, we were paid $31, which was very little but thankfully I’m not required to take annual leave from work to do this; most employers still pay their staff normal pay and we were expected to return to work if we weren’t required for the full day at Court. Jury service is a disruption to our daily lives (usually takes a week but sometimes longer) but is important because it is where we play a part in our democratic legal system and our responsibility to the community to make sure that justice is done.

I headed to the District Court at 9.30am on Monday and got in line to have my name checked off the list with the Court staff. Everyone had to get their name checked off the list (name not ticked off = not present and no reimbursement) then proceeded to the waiting room to help ourselves to free tea/coffee and just sat around reading any material we brought with us. Waiting times are expected so bringing along an iPod or book would help kill time. We had a full room of potential jurors this morning, probably 50-60 seated next to each other in the small waiting room.

Looking around to see if I could find a familiar face, you wouldn’t believe who was in the same room as me – my buddy Josh! He too like me was summoned for jury service for the first time. At least we have each other to chat to while waiting for further instructions from the Court staff :)

Around 10am, one of the Court staff gave us a briefing and played a DVD of the jury process and our duties as a juror. A jury is a group of 12 people chosen at random to sit in a Court trial to hear the evidence and reach a verdict. A juror must have good understanding of English (we were assured if we can hold a normal everyday conversation, it would suffice), wear tidy clothing (no sandals or shorts) and must remain impartial and keep an open mind about the evidences we hear. Jurors cannot discuss the case with anyone except their fellow jurors during the trial. The DVD proceeded to show us an example of how a Court trial is conducted and its protocol, all simply and clearly explained. Hmm, being a juror is not as complicated or daunting as I thought…

There were 3 trials on today and the 3 Court staff (each in charge of a trial) each did a ballot selection of names from the ballot box. The names on the jury list were cut up into small cards, placed into the ballot box, locked and spun before the name picking began. It was a bit like lotto, only we didn’t win money but had a chance of becoming a juror. Surprisingly, everyone had their name picked for a trial today.

More waiting around and finally about 10.30am, my Court staff came to collect my group and we headed upstairs to the Courtroom. We, the jury panel, were seated at the back of the Courtroom and briefed on the details of the trial – this was one that involved use of a stolen vehicle. The accused was then brought in accompanied by an officer seated next to him. Ok, I should not make judgements without first listening to the evidence but he has such a ‘mess-with-me-you’ll-be-sorry’ badass look…I couldn’t help it! Thoughts – out of my head!! The judge then enters the Courtroom and everyone present had to stand up as the judge walked in and sat down after he took his seat. Frankly, I do not see why the judge should be honoured this way (after all, he is still human like the rest of us) but I suppose this is a form of respect to someone of higher status, responsibility, power and representing the law. The lawyers introduced themselves, followed by the judge reiterating to the jury panel the juror’s duties and then the Court Registrar read out the names of the witnesses to the room. If we knew the accused or the witnesses, we must inform the Court staff immediately.

Next, the Court Registrar puts all our names into the ballot box again and draws names for the 12 jurors. As the name is called, the potential juror walks up to the jury box and is offered a bible by the Court staff to take with him/her (you can just put up your hand or shake your head to decline). Why I say ‘potential juror’ is because having your name called doesn’t necessarily mean you are a juror for the trial. Some people will be challenged as they come forward. A lawyer (representing the Crown or accused) may call 'challenge' before you are seated and then you must return to the back of the court. We were told beforehand not to take this personally as the lawyer is simply exercising their right to challenge without cause (and they can do so up to 4 times each) but I bet everyone challenged would feel somewhat discriminated even just briefly. I was challenged on a trial I attended on Thursday (this was an assault case) and I still wondered on what basis was I challenged – race? Age?? Sex??? How much information does the lawyer have of us anyway?? And the lawyer does not need to give a reason. I guess I’ll never know why hmm… :/

Anyway, back to the Courtroom. So this process of name selection and ‘challenge’ continues on until all 12 jurors are selected. They are then sworn in and instructed by the judge to go to the jury room to select a foreman who is chosen to head the jury’s discussions and speak officially for them. The rest of us who weren’t called had to wait in the room until the jury returned to their seats (this is in case a juror has to relinquish his/her duties because they know the accused or witnesses), this time with the foreman seated closest to the judge. Only then the judge releases us for the day.

Some jurors may sit on more than one trial during the course of the week while others may not be selected at all. I had to come in 4 times this week and twice selected for a trial but not once as a juror. To some extent, I found the whole process tedious (we go through the name balloting every session) and unable to make plans because I never know whether I would be sitting in on a trial or not. Felt a bit bummed out that I didn’t get to sit in on a trial this time round despite showing up the whole week. Still, it was an interesting experience and I have done my part for the community by turning up!

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