Monday, 8 February 2016

First day in court

Today was the beginning of my two-week stint as a juror. Or rather, two weeks of being available to serve as a juror. You turn up at the Crown Court, but you won't necessarily be part of an actual jury straight away, or maybe not even at all.

Nevertheless I was keen not to be late, and almost took it for granted that I'd get a chance on my very first day to do the Good Citizen Thing that I'd always wanted to do.

I had to be at the Court by 9.15am. To ensure a timely arrival, I arrived at Hassocks station at 7.45am, intending to catch the 7.57am train to Brighton. From there, I'd walk. The exercise would do me good. Allowing half an hour for the footwork - I might not need so much - it was surely possible to reach Hove Crown Court by 8.40am. There was, deliberately, plenty of slack in these timings. I'd be catching my train near the end of its long journey, and it was bound to be running a little late. And it was, by almost quarter of an hour. Storm Imogen, sweeping in from the Atlantic, was bringing high winds even to Sussex, and there were speed restrictions in force for safety's sake. But I still reached Hove in time to enter the Court building at 8.45am. It was a bright but blustery walk, and all my early-morning drowsiness was blown away. I was absolutely fresh and ready to go.

I was the first juror to turn up. I had the court staff to myself. I ascertained their names, and got them on my side. The two ushers assigned to my group were called Paul and Kevin.

I was able to clear up with Paul what one did with mobile phones. They weren't entirely banned. You could have them with you, and use them normally, while waiting around in the jurors' lounge. They had to be switched off when in the courtroom, but you could still keep possession of them. It was only when shut in the deliberation room - to consider the verdict - that they had to be given up. You popped them into a bag that was kept safe by the usher, and got them back after the verdict had been given in court and one was free to go.

I told Paul that I'd left my phone at home - needlessly, I now saw - and was badly missing the convenience of having it with me. For example, to check my train times, to show me a street map of Brighton, and to tell Paul what my next door neighbour's mobile phone number was - he needed a contact number in case I fell ill at court, or for any other emergency. The phone was a repository of all the useful stuff I might need during the day. I felt a bit rudderless without it!

Not quite knowing what to expect, I was armed with a shopping bag full of refreshments - a double dollop of home-made sandwiches, two Kitkats, an apple, and a flask of water. I'd set the wake-up alarm for 5.57am in order to give me time to put all that together, have breakfast, and then shower and wash my hair. I'd had a change of mind on what to wear. Not a dress: that would be too formal. I settled for a nice top, knee-length black skirt, and black tights and shoes, wearing my black padded coat over the whole lot. It was the right kind of choice.

I wasn't the only juror to get to the Court ahead of time. Other people came soon after I arrived. By 9.15am all but three had made it there. We soon learned that those three were stuck on a train held up south of Haywards Heath - Storm Imogen had felled a tree that had blocked the track. While waiting for them, Paul took us through the court facilities, explained how to claim expenses - there shouldn't be any problem with my weekly season ticket - and showed us an interesting video that explained who was who in the courtroom, and what the procedure was. Then it was a matter of waiting around until we were needed.

Two of the courtrooms were being used for cases that had started a while ago, one of them in mid-January, one the previous week. Last week's case was likely to finish that morning, freeing jurors who could make up the numbers for our group. So we waited for that case to come to an end. Then Kevin would call fifteen of us down into another courtroom prepared for a fresh case expected to last three days. Meanwhile we had to kill time as best we could.

The waiting lounge for jurors was sunny, and full of comfortable seating, enough for up to sixty jurors (everything was geared to batches of fifteen). There was tea and coffee, chilled water, and lots of sweets and biscuits, and payment was by an honesty box. Twice a lady came in to replenish supplies. There were decent toilets, and a 'quiet room' if anyone wanted to get away from a roomful of chatty jurors. In that 'quiet room' were the lockers - you popped in whatever you wanted to lock away, dropped a £1 coin into the slot, locked the door, and kept the key until you wanted your stuff again. You did get your £1 back!

Although you could see (as the waiting lounge filled up) that roughly equal numbers of men and women had been summoned, my group were preponderantly female. I was the oldest woman. The group's typical age was around forty-five. There was one young man about twenty, and an older man about sixty. But age didn't matter; we all soon began to chat, and after a couple of hours definitely began to bond.

But my goodness, the waiting got a bit tiresome! Paul regularly informed us about what was happening behind the scenes, and when things might begin. At 2.15pm Kevin came in and announced that he was going to call out fifteen names. I was among them! So was most of my group! This was very pleasing, because by then we all felt like friends. Down we went to the courtroom.

There was the robed and bewigged judge. There were the gowned and bewigged counsel for the prosecution and defence. There was the lady clerk. And behind a glass panel were three persons, two men and a woman, one of whom I took to be the defendant.

First the jurors had to be selected and sworn in, with the defendant or defendants watching - apparently this was essential so that if any juror recognised one of the defendants (or indeed a name on the list of witnesses to be called) the fact could (and should) be made known to the court. Similarly if a defendant (or their counsel) was unhappy about any juror, they could say so to the court.

The potential jurors each had their names on cards that the clerk shuffled and then read out. I listened with mounting excitement, and I'm sure everyone else did too! As a person's name was read out, you had to answer 'yes' and then take a seat in the jury box. Slowly the twelve seats filled up. Would I be next? No. This time then? No...

And do you know, my name was never called! Nor were the names of two men left waiting with me. Our 'friends' looked at us from the jury box with - I'm sure I'm not mistaken - something akin to dismay. We were going to be split up. I felt gutted, thwarted. But it had all been done fairly and openly, and was really just the way things go by chance. For some reason we three rejects were allowed to witness the swearing-in, which was useful, and then we were led away upstairs by Paul. 'Don't take it personally,' he urged us, when we were back in the waiting lounge. It was 2.40pm, and for us the day as over.

Disappointments were not at an end. No other court case was due to start next day (Tuesday). We should however phone during the afternoon for instructions. A one-day case was booked for the day after (Wednesday). Huh, I thought, only a one-day case - and no guarantee I'd get even that!

I knew it was unreasonable, but I felt short-changed and unwanted. I put on a brave smiling face, but it all felt such a let-down. And there was also the pang of snapping all those bonds lately made, bonds that couldn't now be developed into friendships. It was hard not to cry. That sounds absurd, I know, but I was so psyched up to do my conscientious bit, in the company of the people I'd come to like, that the denial and the severance both seemed brutal. It hurt. Fortunately I met a nice woman with a dog on my walk back to Brighton station. She knew exactly how I felt - it had happened to her too. Well, that was certainly a consolation, and she made me feel rather better.

My difficulties were still not entirely over. Trains northward of Brighton had been stopped for hours while they cleared away that fallen tree, and the normal train schedule was well out of kilter. I sat around waiting for a train to come in and take me home. One did after forty minutes. I unlocked my front door at 4.00pm.

Of course, I do feel a lot more upbeat as I write this. 'Look at the silver linings,' I've said to myself.

# I didn't get soaked by rain getting to the Court, nor coming away from it.

# I've learned from another girl that I can buy lovely baguettes and other yummy things from a French Patisserie shop in Hove, quite near the Court - no need to make sandwiches, no need to lug a shopping bag around.

# And no need to get up early tomorrow. In fact, I can have a totally normal life tomorrow, subject only to making that afternoon phone call to the Court.

# There might even be a sporting chance of pilates on Friday, and the apr├Ęs-pilates to follow, in the seriously good company of Jo et al.  

But I do hope my keenness to serve on a jury is rewarded soon. It would be awful if my two weeks pass, and I'm never selected!

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