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10 things that jurors need to know

The judge in Vicky Pryce's trial dismissed the jury after their questions revealed they did not understand their task. So what do jurors need to know before they take on the duty? Here are 10 tips from someone who has done it in the past

1. The process will begin with a letter arriving in the post saying you have been randomly selected to undertake two weeks of jury service. Do not try to get yourself excused. This will be one of the most interesting, invigorating experiences of your life. (Legitimate excuses include already having a holiday or operation booked, but you can only play that card once in a calendar year.)

2. When you first arrive at court on the Monday morning you will be security-checked then directed towards a large room with "Jurors Only" on the door. Inside you will likely see at least a hundred other jurors all waiting to be randomly selected for a trial.

3. The wait. Until you are selected by the clerk, you will have to hang around in the jurors' room. This could be hours, even a few days. (I wasn't selected until the Friday.) This is the perfect chance to tackle that big book you've been meaning to read – devoid of any life interruptions. Or, instead, watch Jeremy Kyle on the big communal TV at one end of the room – a very popular choice, enhanced by the fact that you are watching it with a true cross-section of society, none of whom you will ever meet again. Revel in the fact you are embedded in a live, anthropological experiment, which will expose the deep-held prejudices and life-affirming sensitivities of those around you in equal measure. The clerk will also ask you all to watch an instructional video explaining the court process and your role as a juror.

4. You will be compensated for lost earnings as well as travel and eating expenses. Moaning about this will, if you're not careful, dominate some conversations you have with fellow jurors. Expenses include a return ticket on public transport and £5.71 for lunch. You can either use the courtroom canteen, or, more wisely, get some fresh air and go out for lunch during your allotted hour. Watch Attenborough-like as social cliques and class-bound groupings form all around you – particularly highlighted when you spot those who gather to go out together for lunch.

5. Your name will eventually be called by the clerk on the PA system, along with 14 others. You will all be led into the court room. A further selection process will see three people drop out and the remaining 12 will be directed to sit down in any order on the seats provided. You will be offered cheap stationery so you can take notes.

6. The trial will begin. It could last just a few hours, or many weeks. Be prepared, though: it is highly unlikely to be something "interesting" such as a complex murder trial. Nonetheless, the prosecution and defence will make their cases, just as you've seen in the movies or on TV. The judge will stop on occasion to direct and instruct the jurors. Don't worry: you will be hand-held through it all.

7. Loo breaks. Yes, it's a very real issue when you're spending seven hours a day listening to evidence. So plan ahead. The jurors typically have their own en-suite loo adjoining the deliberation room, which itself is adjacent to the court room. Throughout the hearing of evidence and the subsequent deliberation you will use that loo, but the court will have to be adjourned if you need to interrupt proceedings. Avoid that embarrassment at all costs.
12 Angry Men 'Claustrophobic': 12 Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet). Photograph: United Artists/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

8. After the judge sums up, you will be led into the deliberation room. It is exactly as presented in 12 Angry Men: a simple, slightly claustrophobic room with a long table and 12 chairs. A foreman will be selected, largely, it seems, through a somewhat fraught process of working out who has the most respectable job, social position or the most dominant personality.

9. Just as with the dismissed jury in the Pryce case, debate will rapidly move to what "beyond reasonable doubt" actually means. The settling of this debate will likely determine the outcome of your deliberations. Its strict application will cause you all, in turn, to doubt everything the prosecution has said. Don't be surprised if your first show of hands at the outset of your deliberation doesn't reflect your final collective decision. If you can't settle on what the term means precisely, you could instead let each juror go with their gut instinct, having absorbed all the evidence. It might feel unsatisfactory and unscientific, particularly if it risks playing into some of the jurors' obvious prejudices about the defendants, but it will help break the deadlock.

The role of the foreman is crucial in defusing arguments and ensuring each juror has their fair say. But pressure – watch-tapping, huffing, raised eyebrows – will still be directed towards those struggling to reach a decision. After a time, the judge will instruct you if they are prepared to accept a majority 10-2 verdict instead of a unanimous verdict. But this may only act to make your deliberations harder. It is unlikely you will ever witness peer pressure as intense as this elsewhere in your life. You will witness the best and worst sides of humanity in that room. It will both exhaust and invigorate you.

10. Steel yourself for the anxiety you will experience when seeing the reaction of both the defendant in the dock – and their family and friends in the gallery – as the verdict is announced by the foreman. They will look you all in the eyes, regardless of whether they are elated or furious. That moment will stay with you for ever – as will those intense hours of deliberation with your fellow jurors. View the whole process as a precious – and vitally important – life experience, rather than a chore or inconvenience. Oh, and you will never need, or want, to watch Jeremy Kyle ever again.

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What's happening to Legal Aid

You may well have read in the national press about cutbacks in legal aid. These cutbacks are often accompanied with remarks about fat cat lawyers living off the cream of the legal aid fund, they seldom mention the harm to access to justice by those of modest means, nor the many hard working and dedicated lawyers who represent them for a fraction of the fees earned by their colleagues who are privately funded.

The situation is already difficult, legal aid has already been withdrawn from many areas of law, and where it is available only the poorest qualify. Strict rules on means testing mean that those in work who earn the national average wage (approximately £23K) are unlikely to qualify. 

But now things are going to get worse, the government is looking to reduce the budget  by at least 25% and possibly as much as 40%. They have already re-organised lawyers contracts in family law and have lost some 40% of the firms undertaking that work along the way. This means that within a few more months, as current contracts finish, many areas will be left with no local firm able to offer help in divorce, disputes over access to children and care proceedings. Even where one firm has survived, many family problems involve two parties who are in dispute over matters such as who should have the children, meaning that one party may have to travel many miles to find another practice to help them.

It's not just family, in criminal work means testing has already been introduced. This means that Mr. Average who finds himself wrongly accused of a crime, is unlikely to qualify for any representation in the Magistrates Court and in more serious matters in the Crown Court, may be asked to pay a colossal contribution towards costs. Don't think that it may never happen to you, a momentary lapse of attention whilst driving resulting in a fatality can lead to a prosecution for causing death by careless driving, conviction for which often leads to imprisonment. So, not only the trauma of the accident and the anxiety of a prosecution, but also the added worry of trying to pay for experienced representation.

Interesting to note that, despite yet another attack on the ordinary man or woman in the street, the three  former Members of Parliament accused of falsifying their expenses have all been granted legal aid to include representation by three separate firms of solicitors, three barristers and three Queens Counsel. They have already expended goodness knows how many hundreds of thousands of pounds of your money on a failed application, to prevent their prosecution, to the Court of Appeal, where the Crown were represented by three barristers and one Queens Counsel, all paid for by the taxpayer. What was that about "justice for all" its more a case of "one law for them and -------------"
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