Did you know that I cannot vote in British Parliamentary elections but I can throw British people into jail? No? Neither did I, until I got my jury summons! It transpires that if you have been a permanent resident in the United Kingdom for over 5 years and hold an EU passport, you can get called up for mandatory Jury Service, even if you’re not a British citizen!
As a Finn accustomed to a different legal system, I have to admit I was quite curious about the experience and if nothing else, I was going to be able to see more wigs and gowns than in a Helsinki Drag Club!
But seriously, there were several things I had not realised until I turned up at Maidstone Crown Court and had my bags and belongings checked by airport style security. For instance, I had no idea how big the court house was and that there were several court cases going on and over 140 jurors waiting to be “allocated” their criminal case in one of the 8 court rooms.
Neither did I realise that we were going to be kept in a separate juror holding area, being escorted by a court usher through back entrances and long winding corridors into the court room, so that we could not be approached or intimidated by the defendant, their relatives or any witnesses. We were also told that whilst the case was going on, we were not allowed to Google the case or the defendant, neither were we allowed to discuss the case with anyone, including our family. Not easy, if you’re known as the biggest blabbermouth south of the Thames!
I did not realise how shocked I would feel when I saw the first defendant, a middle-aged woman, stand in the dock, handcuffed and accompanied by two burly security guards. Neither was I prepared for the situation when we read out the verdict of “not guilty” at the end of my second case and the young man who was the defendant, shouted “Thank you” from the dock to us jurors. When I left the court house later that afternoon, I caught a glimpse of the defendant, walking towards the bus stop as a free man, and that felt good.
But more than anything else, I was not prepared for the camaraderie and laughter amongst us jurors! Like when some of the jurors swapped phone numbers with each other to stay in contact or when we all giggled in the holding room during our first court case because one of the criminals had a silly name!
But my funniest memory is from the day we were all told we could leave early, but to keep our mobile phones on. As it was early December, our jury of 12 were delighted by the prospect of doing some Christmas shopping in Maidstone and left the court house swiftly. Unfortunately I had not even managed to cross the street, when my mobile rang, and I was told to return to the court house as the case was going to resume. Some jury members had been luckier and managed to get a bit further, like our Jury Foreman, a young polite, academic looking, spectacle clad chap in a duffel coat, who was in Hawkins Bazaar (a type of “Pilailupuoti” in Finnish) buying his boss a Secret Santa gift.
Our Jury Foreman had to return swiftly to the court house, and when asked by the stern faced security guards whilst having his bag searched if he was carrying any sharp objects or a weapon, had to confess:
“I’ve got a potato gun in my bag, but it’s not loaded”.
Could there be anything more embarrassing than the Jury Foreman having to declare a toy gun? The security guards were not amused but we, the entire jury, howled with laughter!
So if you do get a jury summons, my advice would be, try and embrace this different experience, you might strangely enough even enjoy it! Oh, and don’t do your shopping in Hawkin’s Bazaar!