Last week, I finished fulfilling one of my civic duties by answering the call of jury service. Now, before I go any further, I need to stress that I’m not allowed by law to talk about any cases I was on, so if you want to hear about any juicy murders or arson attempts you’ve come to the wrong place! I just wanted to write about my experiences of jury service from a secular point of view, in the hope that others can be prepared for the challenges it represents.
First off, you get randomly chosen for jury service from the electoral register and are informed of your summons by post. Then comes the potentially tricky part of working out how you are going to take time off. I was lucky in that my employer was very cooperative and sympathetic, but I do realise that being away from work for two weeks can be a massive inconvenience for some people.
I entered the court on day one with mixed emotions and a whole bunch of questions. What will it be like inside? What sort of case will I be put on? Will I even be put on a case? After going through an airport-style security scanner and into the main jury waiting room, most of my questions were answered by a 15 minute video and a chat with a member of staff. Then came the waiting. A lot of waiting. All you can do is wait for your name to be called out. It’s like waiting for a plane that never arrives!
Eventually, I was called and made my way upstairs with the prospective jury. Whilst waiting to be called into the court room, I experienced the only awkward moment of my jury service. The clerk asked “Is everyone OK with swearing on the Bible”? Myself, being an atheist, was not, so I put my hand up and said “I wish to affirm”. This was met with an “OK” from the clerk, followed by an “Anyone else?”. With that, 4 other hands went up! I do wonder if they would have if I hadn’t said I wanted to affirm.
For those not au fait with the concept of being sworn in on a jury, allow me to explain. Before a trial can start, each juror (12 in the UK) has to swear that they will do their duty as a juror. For most religious people, this involves swearing an oath while holding their holy book. The Judeo-Christian oath is as follows:
I swear by almighty God that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.
Other oaths are available for other religions, but they are essentially just reworkings of the same words with a different deity in place of God. However, if you have no particular religious affiliation, you can (as I did) choose to affirm instead:
I solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.
Now, as you might expect I have several problems with the current set up. When you go into court as a juror, the default position is that you will be a Christian who is happy to swear on the Bible. While this is most probably demographically correct, I don’t see any reason why Christians (or any other religious people) can’t affirm, as the oath and the affirmation carry equal legal weight. In fact, there are several religious groups who don’t believe in swearing oaths and choose to affirm instead. Therefore, affirmation should be the default position. If you choose to affirm, you have to make a positive decision. You have to go against the default. I’d love to hear from a psychologist on this, but it’s my understanding that standing up and saying “No, I want to do something else” is something most people would rather avoid. At present, the system only serves to embed Christianity into the legal system, something I think should be discouraged.
That said, I didn’t detect any prejudice from the courts or my fellow jurors towards my atheism, and I did on the whole find jury service to be a positive experience. You get to examine a lot of evidence and make some very important decisions. I went into it hoping to make the best of it, and I believe I did. I’d recommend it to anyone who gets a summons.
I also got a glimpse of the British National Party as I went in one morning, who were there to protest against a paedophile ring who were being sentenced that day. I wanted to shout “Nazi scum!” at them but I thought I’d better not as I was there in an official capacity. Fortunately someone else did 5 seconds after I walked past!
Bill P. Godfrey
Really, everyone should affirm. If you’re a witness or the defendant, the first thing the jury get to know about you is your (lack of) religion, and any prejuduces based on that.
Tony Ryan - Coffee Loving Skeptic
I often get surprised looks when I affirm as a witness. I obviously attend court more than most, and maybe it’s my uniform, but it’s almost as though not swearing on the Bible comes as a bit of a surprise to the Clerk.
Why do i need to know the religions or non-religions of my fellow jurors, or indeed why do they need to know my religion /non religion?
can’t religous hatred occur in a jury room as it does in normal life?
imagine a Druid defendant with a christian jury,or a christian defendant with a muslim jury.
I think you should be sworn in privately.
I agree with all of the above.Surely it’s time for a complete removal of these ancient ideas from public life.
All jurors should affirm, and witnesses too.Lets face it there is certainly a lack of evidence for Christian declarations or for any other group involved in the supernatural based on Bronze age stories.
Some Christians who have read and practice Matthew 5: 34-37 also choose to affirm. Personally, I respect anyone who stands up for whatever they believe or do not believe in.
Found your post interesting. I’m pagan and would like to do more than affirm, ‘Swear by everything I hold sacred’. I’ve been told there is something for us now and from February when I do my jury service will find out
YES, HOW CAN AN ATHIEST GET A FAIR TRIAL EVEN IN A CIVIL CASE? IN THE STATES THE OATH IS “SO HELP ME GOD”. I CAN’T FIGURE OUT WHAT THAT MEANS.
I just had jury service in London and they didn’t assume anything. The usher just before they hand you the text card to read whispers/asks which text you want. This was explained by the clerk before the 12 are called. In my first trial there were about 4 or 5 affirms, 2 allahs and the rest bibles. My second trial there were 2 affirms 1 allah and the rest Gods.
If county court (i.e. civil-law court) judges in the UK are any example to go by, then all such oaths that are sworn in a court should be honoured only in the breach!
The judge’s oath is somewhat similar to that sworn by jurors, but if county court judges, especially, actually adhered to its principles, I’m sure “David” (the little man) would win out far more often against “Goliath” ( the big man, or the vested interest) than he certainly appears to do! (And as a sometime litigant against such big-interest parties, believe me, I know whereof I speak!)
I am an Evangelical Christian and senior minister at a large church. However, before joining the church I was a fraud officer, and would often have to go to court. I always used the affirmation option as my belief is that as Christians we are specifically prohibited from making an oath in the name of God (or anything else holy.)
Jesus said, “you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (Matthew 5:33-37)
I was recently asked to give evidence in a family court, and it must have seemed most odd for a clergyman, in a dog-collar, to ‘positively opt out’ and use the affirmation!
James A. Hinton Jr.
I agree with the comment on the bible scripture “Matthew 5:34-37” because I am a born again Christian filled with fire baptism. I believe only in what the word of God says.
I am from Poland, had been in the UK, London for 7 years already. I was really surprised when I was called for jury duty. As an agnostic person I was looking for other options during the oath. I agree affirmation should be the default as many people might feel forced to give a religious oath and that obscure truth – not the best start for any trial.
I just watched the oath of the first 12 juries and for all of them it was a religious one.