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!