I screwed up. I went on holidays and didn't bother checking the mountain of mail that accumulated over two weeks. By the time I got around to it, I found a letter buried in the pile. I had been summoned for jury duty.
Jury image from Shutterstock
The letter said I had to attend court in two days' time. I didn't think I had an excuse this time either and I really should have given work a lot more notice but part of me thought I probably wouldn't be selected. And then I was. Shit.
Let me just get one thing out of the way: As much as people groan when they are forced to do jury duty, it's an important aspect of the justice system in Australia. Yes, you will have to take weeks even months out of your life and your employer will not be happy about it but it is your civic duty.
Well, that's what I was told when I tried to get out of it. I've actually been excused twice before I was finally roped in: once the trial was cancelled and the other time I was on vacation. If I've learned anything, juror summons are like Terminators: they won't stop coming for you.
I was summoned to court in New South Wales and each state has slightly different rules and procedures but, as far as I can tell, they all seem quite similar. Nonetheless, I want to stress that my experiences are that of the NSW courts.
I'll spare you a recount of the entire selection process and I can't give you the specifics of the case I was part of the jury for, but here are some insights from the experience that may help you should you ever be summoned to serve as a juror:
#1 You'll Be Killing A Rainforest
During the course of the trial, a lot of paper was involved. Written, electronic and photographic evidence was printed out and given to each of the 12 jurors. By the end of the process, we had three binders full of paper each. Our court officer said that he's seen trials with more folders.
I'm thinking that we have demolished a rainforest somewhere in South America thanks the torrent of paper we used during the trial.
I did spend some time mulling over why the courts don't just put everything onto a tablet. Going through a gazillion binders to review evidence isn't exactly convenient and printed material flying around isn't all that secure. Perhaps somebody out there could make an app that would make going through evidence on a tablet a breeze (there's a million-dollar idea for you).
#2 Work Is Going To Hate You For It
It's completely understandable for your employer to loathe the idea of you doing jury duty. They'll be losing an employee and there's no definite time as to when the trial will be over (you do get an estimated timeframe but it's not set in stone).
Most workplaces, I would say, don't have formalised plans for when an employee is summoned for jury duty. While they don't make it explicitly clear, you can actually apply for an exemption from jury duty using a work excuse if a) you're a business critical employee or sole trader and your company can't live without you or b) you're involved in some big project at work that you can't step away from.
You can sent a letter from your employer to say this or you can apply for exemption directly from the judge on the day you are summoned. It doesn't explicitly say this on the exemption form that is attached to your summons and the court makes it very clear that they don't usually like hearing work-related excuses. I'm assuming they've had a lot of people come through who proclaim they can't afford to be away from their work. But as my court officer put it, "If everybody wanted to get out of jury duty because they can't get away from work then there wouldn't be anybody to do jury duty."
I mean, that's not going to stop employers from getting annoyed at the situation and trying anything to get their employees out even after they've sworn in (point of no return here, guys). One of the jurors on my panel showed up two hours late. We all thought he had died from an accident on the way to court but it turned out his manager told him to not show up to jury duty and that the company was willing to fork out a fine, which he thought was around $2000.
One phone call from the Sheriff's Department and a threat of a $100,000 fine later, the juror was released from work.
It's worth noting that you do actually get paid a decent amount of money per day while you're on jury duty ($235.65 a day if you're employed) so at least you don't have to worry too much about your finances while the trial is running. However, on days when court doesn't sit you won't get paid.
#3 It's Not A Holiday
There are people who seem to assume that I just sit on my butt and do nothing during jury duty. That's only partially true; we do sit on our butts for most of the day. Occasionally there are little excursions to look at physical evidence.
But what you may not realise is we literally sit in one spot for hours listening to everything in court and we have to pay attention to every detail; there are people's lives at stake here. Sometimes, what's said in court is just plain boring. Pages of transcript from interviews may need to be read out just so that it can go into the official records.
Imaging sitting in the driest lecture in the world and you don't have your phone, computer or even a book to distract you. There are times when I wondered why a particular piece of evidence was being submitted because it seems useless and a waste of time. But then later on, I got the "Aha!" moment where I realise that was a crucial piece of evidence.
I can't stress enough, you really do need to give your full attention in court. It's going to be exhausting and there were days I would go home, collapse in bed and sleep for a few hours because it's so draining.
#4 The Decision Will Be Hard
I'm not at liberty to give details about the deliberation process. All I can say is that it's incredibly intense and tough. By the time we gave the verdict, half the jurors were in tears. It's an emotional process and the experience will stay with you.
It was incredibly stressful and everyday I worried about falling behind at work. But hey, at least now I don't have to be a juror again for the next three years.
You can find out more about jury duty in your respective state below: