Are jurors well served?

Jury service in Gibraltar, as in many other countries, is a civic duty and an obligation. With very few exceptions (mainly people with serious mental health problems or significant criminal records), anyone aged between 18 and 65 may be asked to serve and if you don’t show up when summoned you commit an offence punishable by a fine. You may ask to be excused, but you’d best have a compelling reason.

If selected for the jury you’re forbidden from discussing the case with anyone except fellow jury members even after the trial is over, not even with your family. If you do, or if you discuss or post comments about the trial on social media, you’re in “contempt of court” and may face prosecution yourself.

Yes, serving on a jury is a serious business.

But are jurors themselves well served?

What happened at the end of a murder trial this month may suggest they’re not. After delivering its guilty verdict, the jury of seven women and five men produced a note that was read out in court in which they requested the creation of a support group or counselling service. The experience of the week-long trial, they said, had been traumatic.

They probably weren’t aware of it, but their sentiments chimed with the findings of a report that warned, precisely, that the nature of the evidence seen and heard by juries in the course of a trial can lead to trauma. The research, by psychologists at the University of Leicester, concluded that jury service can be a significant source of anxiety and for a vulnerable minority can engender moderate to severe clinical levels of stress. In the longer term it could, the report claimed, even lead to symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Among the most frequently reported sources of stress were having to decide on a verdict; fear of making a mistake; reaching a majority verdict rather than a unanimous one (in murder cases the verdict must be unanimous) and being in a minority position among jury members. Listening to disturbing evidence and being sequestered for the duration of the trial were also high on the list.

To quote the report, jurors:

“Will be exposed to testimony from visibly distressed victims, which will frequently be graphic and shocking. They will be expected to handle exhibits and examine explicit and gruesome photographs. When they retire to the jury room, they will have to rehearse such evidence and weigh up its significance for the guilt of the accused before reaching a verdict. They may find themselves in a minority on the jury, trying to change the minds of others while resisting pressures to conform to the majority view. All these processes have the potential to lead to significant distress, both in the short and longer term”.

 That’s in the UK. In a small jurisdiction like Gibraltar, where it’s much more likely that jury members will personally know the accused, the victim and/or their families, the potential levels of stress must surely be higher still. But jurors are expected to just get on with it. They don’t even have the benefit, as their UK counterparts do, of being shown a film explaining their duties before the trial starts, a measure that many see as insufficient anyway. What’s more, despite improvements to the infrastructure arrangements for juries, potential jurors waiting to be called still have to hang around in the Supreme Court precincts, mingling with defendants and witnesses.

Nearly a decade ago, following a public consultation, the GSD government introduced reforms to the jury system. These included abolishing many of the automatic exemptions from jury service that had hitherto existed (meaning that lawyers, MPs and teachers among others could now be asked to serve) and providing for lay assessors to sit alongside judges, or for judges to sit alone, in complex financial crime cases. The very question of whether trial by jury should be abolished was posed.

But while the 2008 consultation paper asked the public whether it thought there was any intimidation of jurors and what type of measures would best address this problem, it was silent on the potentially harmful effects to health that serving on a jury might have. Maybe the cry for help by the “12 good men (and women) and true” who decided the outcome of Gibraltar’s most recent murder trial will have the desired effect.

Author: gibsteve

Broadcast journalist for 31 years 20 of them as news editor with GBC, the local radio and TV station in Gibraltar. Now retired and finding ways to keep busy.

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