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It may be inconvenient but it's called jury duty for a reason

"Jury service? Are you mad, sure you can get out of that."

It was the common reaction to news that I'd received my first ever jury summons.

As a journalist who'd spent years reporting on courts, and who still handles court reports on a daily basis, it was unlikely I'd prove to be an acceptable juror.

But unlike lawyers, gardai, retired judges, court officials and a raft of other people close to the criminal justice system, I wasn't automatically excluded.

Still, friends suggested. there must be some other get-out clause.

But I wasn't a monk, a TD, a doctor, midwife, vet or someone else performing important community service which would have excused me. I wasn't mentally ill to the point that I lived in an institution or needed regular medical treatment.

And I wasn't in possession of a serious criminal record (petty stuff doesn't count) which would have disqualified me.

Anyhow, why would I want to 'get out of it'?

I'd been on the electoral register for more than quarter of a century without getting the call-up.

It was hardly an onerous thing my country was now asking of me.

Curious

Surely, several people suggested, I could get my employer to write a letter saying I was needed at work.

But who isn't these days?

Apart from being curious about what really goes on in jury rooms, our Constitution does specify that people be tried by a jury of their peers.

So last Monday I joined more than 100 other citizens in the jury area of the Criminal Courts of Justice. Those of us who turned up were in a minority.

If the numbers on our summonses had been allocated in sequence, then hundreds of people who were called to be there weren't.

Some may have responded to their jury summonses explaining why they were ineligible. But others were clearly expected, as their numbers were called several times.

Turning up doesn't mean you'll actually sit on a jury. Numbers are drawn and would-be jurors had another chance to escape duty.

At least every second person there got excused for either work or family reasons before being sworn in.

One was worried about how his colleagues in a small workplace would manage if he had to sit in a trial for two weeks; a woman had become a full-time carer for her mother since getting her jury summons; another had a holiday booked.

As proceedings dragged on, the grumbling began.

"There's more than 400,000 people on the dole, so why should working people have to do this?" one man asked.

The truth is, most of them don't.

A whole slew of public sector workers can get out of jury service because of their apparent importance to the running of the country.

Own your own business? If it can't do without you, you're off the hook.

Would your company find it difficult to manage in your absence for a week or so? Back to work with you.

Are you caring for children or other dependants? Off you go.

An entire court-list in Ennis Court had to be adjourned one day last week because there weren't enough people to make up juries. Of the 250 people called, just 35 showed up.

But even the ones who do show can get out of it.

So who's left to get picked for juries in the end?

Mainly unemployed people and those who couldn't, or perhaps didn't want to, persuade a judge that their jobs were sufficiently important. Hardly representative.

I never got to experience what goes on in the jury room.

Twice, my number came up, and twice either the prosecution or defence objected to me.

Disrupted

It does eat into your time -- four mornings' were disrupted for me. Those selected might have to spent two or three weeks hearing a case.

So will I try to get out of it next time I'm summonsed?

No.

The system could be made more efficient and there's no doubt the image of the juror as someone who's not important enough to be elsewhere could do with a makeover.

But if ever I find myself on the wrong side of the law, I'd like some shot at being tried by a jury of my peers.

hnews@herald.ie