Jury service

The Australian Constitution guarantees the right of any person accused of wrong doing to a trial by jury, and it is a fundamental right and civic responsibility of all Australian citizens as part of our democratic society.

Jury service is one of the most important civic duties we may be called upon to undertake. Like voting, it is an obligatory right and an example of the accountability of citizenship in Australia.

Each year, around 25,000 people attend court for jury service in Victoria, with 26% of them, which is approximately 6,500 people, serving as jurors.

From receiving a notice from Juries Victoria to attend the County Court, I had a few weeks to prepare. I spent some time on the internet, searching for related government sites and reading every link the government department, Juries Victoria, provided, trying to learn courtroom etiquette and the “dos & don’ts” to help myself to be useful instead of a burden.

I altered my Queensland trip plans, stayed put and waited for the next notice. I take this fundamental right and civic responsibility seriously, and was proud to be able to take part in a trial, to contribute to our democratic society.

The next notice came after the period that was first stated. I was glad for I thought I had missed the boat.

The day finally came. I arrived at the County Court and went through the security check. It was like the airport system except there were no irritated or annoyed faces around; thus, the entrance was easy with a stable atmosphere and committed staff.

It must have been my “wondering what’s next” look; a friendly voice that settled my mind said, “Come for jury service? Turn left!”

As soon as I turned left, my wondering look changed to a surprised look. There was a long queue right in front of me. I joined the line and became number 36 in line waiting; soon after, there were 27 people in the line behind me.

All my pieces of knowledge of the court have come from the movies or a bit here and there from the daily television news programme.

While waiting in line to register my attendance, the jury pool supervisor came over to introduce herself and checked that the necessary documents were ready to show the receptionist. I was delighted to see that after 15 minutes past the security check, I was already seated in the jury pool room waiting to be called.

The jury pool room had about 140 seats; most were filled with people. Plus, there were 14 computer desks along the wall, with plugs and fittings for laptop users. Next to the jury pool room were a locker room and a playroom with a pool table and a chess table. The kitchen had a toaster, microwave oven, fridge and coffee and tea making facilities. Tables and chairs were lined along the corridor. It was a well thought out environment, particularly for a large group of people out of their comfort zone.

It looked like around 150 people had checked in, and I supposed that we officially formed the jury pool for that day.

The jury pool supervisor showed us an orientation video which I had already watched on the internet. It was good to watch it again since it was my first time as a potential juror; watching a few times helped to set it in the brain. She also provided us with more details on how the day would proceed.

Afterwards, people went up to the supervisor to ask questions, and some of the people went to the kitchen to make a cuppa or get some refreshments.

Before each trial began, a ballot was held to randomly choose people to go to the courtroom. This group of people is called the jury panel, from which the jurors are selected.

Shortly after 10am, ballots started. The supervisor announced that the first trial was estimated to go for 15 days. She randomly chose the numbers from a box, and those who got picked were in the jury panel for this trial. One by one, people got selected. When 22 had been selected, the procedure suddenly stopped because the supervisor received notice that the trial was not going ahead.

The jury pool room was back to silence once more. Most of the people were discreet and kept to themselves. Yes, you are right; there is always one or two who can’t help themselves, if they were not on the phone, then they would make some noise another way. They were showing how nice most of the others were.

Suddenly, someone near me gave a deep, long, heavy sigh. It reminded me of a horror movie about a haunted house I saw; boy oh boy, how glad I was that the jury pool room was not dark and gloomy. Phew! Eight or nine seconds later, there was another sigh, one after the other kept coming, each one worse than the last. Almost like that person was trying to build up enough negative energy inside her, so she could have no mercy towards the criminals. Before long, that corner of the room was filled with pessimism. A couple of people rose from their seats and moved away. I could see my self-sacrifice would benefit no one, so I took the chance and walked out to explore the vicinity for my own well-being.

In the corridor, I saw a lady sitting in front of a small table with a cup of white tea. She was dunking a biscuit into the cup. I presumed that she might be an English migrant, still carrying the prominent British custom with her. After all, 5.3 per cent of Australian residents were born in the United Kingdom. That’s the beauty of Australian society; we have diverse cultural backgrounds.

Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world, uniting many cultures, experiences, beliefs and traditions. With more than 270 ancestries in the nation, no one dares to say Australians are boring.

While walking past the kitchen area, I saw a man adding sugar to his cup. Beside the cup lay a few empty sugar wrappings. He must be married to a dentist who wears the pants in the family, not allowing the teeth’s number one enemy to be in the pantry. Our hero in my story can only beat the authority by betraying her role when she’s not around.

Wow! My eyes opened widely at what I saw when I walked into the room with the pool table. A lady seemed to be wearing her pyjamas, standing near the cue stick stand, her shoulder-length hair covering part of her face. She looked like she just got out of bed. Two days later, I saw that pyjama-style clothing was in many shops in the Chadstone Shopping Centre. Pardon my fashion ignorance. That reminds me of what I had heard from a man talking about his ex-wife; he said that if hanging a dead rat from a pierced ear is the fashion, she would do it, no matter how ridiculous it may look.

11:25am, the supervisor announced that no update was available at that moment on whether the trial would proceed. She said she’d make another announcement at 12pm; with or without an update she would send everyone on a lunch break.

11:38am, the supervisor announced that another trial would be going on for about six days and would proceed with the jury panel selection. She proceeded to shake the box and pulled out the jury numbers once more; this time 35 winners got picked within 12 minutes.

Those still in the jury pool room were given a two hour lunch break.

We had been warned to be extra cautious and not to engage with anyone as it could sabotage the ongoing court cases. Don’t search on the internet for related cases either.

Within a few minutes, the room only had 3 people left; they all had laptops with them. Good to see some people were conscientious with their work or made the most of their time to enrich their knowledge.

Forty minutes later, a few people had had their quick lunch and were back to the room, working on their laptops. I think they are likely the pillars of our society. Hold on a second; I heard a complaining racket coming from an iPhone. I should rephrase it, “I think some of them are the pillars of our society”.

The jury pool room is made up of people from all walks of life, representing a broad cross-section of the community. These are a collection of average citizens, who are selected at random to sit in the courtroom, hear the arguments of both sides, listen to all the evidence, and then, as a group, come to a verdict.

The supervisor asked people many times, if she called out your jury number, to answer “present” or show some acknowledgment. I did not hear a single person answer “present” the whole day. I also noticed more than 30% of the people did not even acknowledge to the supervisor that they heard their number was called; they just started to pack up their belongings. The supervisor was used to the public’s reactions; she just quietly did what she had to do.

Around 2:20pm, all jury panels that were needed for the day had been chosen. I was chosen for the last jury panel.

The last jury panel was for a criminal trial. In the courtroom, the judge’s seat was raised and facing the door. In front of the judge were the prosecution and defence lawyers with their own assistants. The accused person sat against the wall directly opposite the judge, and a clear divider separated the accused from the rest of the people in the court. Nearby was a security guard. Between the lawyers and the accused was the public hearing area; that was where our 35 panel members were seated after entering the courtroom.

The judge thanked the jury panel and emphasised the importance of citizens contributing to Victoria’s justice system. Juries bring the values, standards and expectations of our community into the courtroom.

The judge reiterated to the jury panel our rights and responsibilities as citizens of Australia. The clerk then read out a summary of the trial, which provided us with the nature of the charges and the names of all involved in the trial like the judge, judge’s staff, lawyers and accused.

The next step was the judge invited members of the jury panel to apply to be excused from serving as a juror on the trial. Some openly gave their excuses; some put them in writing and privately asked the judge’s permission to be excused.

Then, the random selection started once again. This time, twelve jurors were chosen from the remaining jury panel. The prosecution and defence have the right to challenge or stand aside jurors without cause, which excludes them from the jury.

When all the jurors had been selected, they all sat in the jury box near the prosecution’s side of the room. They all took a religious oath or civil affirmation that they would carry out their task faithfully.

Before the trial began, those that had not been selected as a juror, returned to the jury pool room with the remainder of the jury panel.

If one has not been selected as a juror on a trial by this stage, in most instances one’s jury service will be complete. Occasionally, one may be required to return the following day.

On my way home, I received a message on the phone, notifying me that my jury duty had officially ended. Although I did not participate in a trial, the six hours spent at the County Court were worthwhile; the precious experience can only be gained by going through it myself.

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