Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Juror’s Tale

Doctors used to be exempted from Jury Service. Not long after this exemption was rescinded I was summonsed to “do my duty”. It was an enlightening experience, and in fact quite shocking.

My colleagues in the large practice in south London, where I was a full time general practitioner for more than thirty years, were dismayed when I told them that I had been summonsed for Jury service. "Exemption for doctors is not longer an option" I reminded them.
     I was reminded in turn that our Practice Deed stated that any partner who is on Jury Service for more than two weeks is liable for the cost of locum fees: at that time about £400 per day, which was ten times the maximum the Courts were prepared to pay jurors for loss of earnings. Realising that in all probability they would be called themselves in due time, that paragraph in the Deed was quickly erased by unanimous agreement.
     I was annoyed at the potential impact my minimum two weeks’ absence would have upon my patients and the practice, but consoled myself in the knowledge that I "would be doing my civic duty" and that I might in fact be able to contribute something valuable to the process of justice in the light of my long experience of listening to and working with people.
     I was soon to be disillusioned. I found it hard to get used to being ushered around like a school child by begowned women who clearly relished the power they wielded over us while possessing, it seemed to me, no more qualifications than an average traffic warden. Roll calls and the Tannoy ruled the tedious days. And tedious they were, far more time being spent waiting at the pleasure of the judiciary than in the actual court room. In fact the enforced idleness was unexpectedly stressful and I found myself ruminating over the number of my patients who had been denied access to me while I sat and read novel after novel.
     The contrast between my own medical practice and the practice of law was both impressive and alarming. I have seldom witnessed any process that seemed so inefficient and wasteful. I sat on four cases, all involving drug related crime, of which only one came to a verdict. On a fifth case I was de-selected from the jury because the defendant was a patient at our practice who recognised me.
     The practice of medicine has long been one that has engaged in self scrutiny, attempting to judge according to best evidence what is good, bad or redundant. The trials I witnessed essentially pitted one account of events against another, and one or both of those accounts could be depended upon to be, to a greater or lesser extent, fabrication. I was shocked by the contempt that was so evident for the taking of the oath by some witnesses, which process has been reduced to little less than a ritual. I more shocked by the character assassination attempted by one barrister upon a man who had been savagely assaulted and robbed in his own home. Most shocking of all was the credulity of some of my fellow jurors, who gawped at the bewigged performers, hanging on to their every word. For myself, I came with time to the conclusion that I was sitting in upon what amounted to an arcane circus, and one that must have changed very little since juries were first instituted. So in law, it seemed, that something that had stood for almost a thousand years had to be good for the sole reason that it had endured. How very different is the situation in medicine!
     One is constantly told that the process of deliberation among jury members in attempting to reach a verdict is little understood. This is not surprising given that what goes on behind those doors remains cloaked in secrecy, and any juror who relates events in the deliberation room, even when a verdict has been reached and the case is closed, may be held in contempt of court. But in general terms I found the experience of listening to the reasoning and opinions of my fellow jurors a disquieting one. I was left in no doubt that preconceptions and prejudice do play a part. Yet the directive given to jurors is unambiguous – that we pronounce the accused guilty only if we are sure beyond all reasonable doubt, and on the strength of the evidence given to us. Of course, in medicine, we may be intuitive in our reasoning, but that is followed up by testing intuition if needs be to destruction. We know this because the processes of the consultation and clinical reasoning have been widely studied, whereas the path by which juries reach a conclusion is largely a matter of guesswork and supposition. In the name of good justice, this cannot be right.
     In the one case where I was able to reach a verdict, I believed that the defendant was guilty in all probability. Yet I did not think that, given the quality of the evidence presented to us, we had any option other than to give a not-guilty verdict. For the evidence, it seemed to me, was both shoddy and badly presented. I found myself arguing, reasoning and making myself unpopular with my fellows on the jury who "knew" he was guilty, yet could give no good reason why they believed this when challenged.
     It might be argued that if I did indeed possess the ability to persuade my fellow jurors against their instinctive conviction that the man was guilty, and to make their decision on the evidence alone as I eventually persuaded them, then it was justification enough for my being chosen to serve. The three hundred patients who were denied my vocational skills in the two weeks that I was away from them might think otherwise. But nobody troubled to consult them.
     It could well be that a guilty man was acquitted. If this was so, then I would attribute it entirely to the deficiencies in the legal system, and that would include poor evidence badly presented, and the fact that the job of making a judgement has been abrogated away from the judges who have the skill to do it, and given to a group of men and woman whose abilities are often lauded, but upon no basis of hard evidence whatever.

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