Thursday, 20 August 2015

Interesting Problems - Jury Service

I was just reading an old friend lamenting jury service on Facebook since, apparently, you only get a few weeks notice of performing the service and clearly this can be very hard to accomodate with other family or work commitments. You can defer service but then your card is marked, so to speak, and you will be called again within twelve months and will have to give them your free dates for the next year to avoid missing again. It's a bit like sticking on 14 or risking a bust by defering.

Surely, he suggested, they could do much better than this and provide longer notice for people to arrange cover. What about single-parent families with young children? What about people involved with important projects at work just as they are called to jury service?

Unfortunately not. There is no simple solution, as I will explain below, but that is not to say there couldn't be a better way. With so many unknowns, however, it can never be a perfect solution, only a best-fit solution that is likely to benefit perhaps most people but not everyone.


Clearly, the way to solve this problem is to have a reliable system of prediction. If we know far enough in advance that we have a Crown Court trial with jury, surely we can reserve and inform enough jury members in advance to cover those cases. Well in theory yes, however, when do you know that a trial by jury is actually occurring? Certain indictable offences will always go to Crown Court and apart from certain exceptions, will always be heard by Jury but they will go via a Magistrates Court who will decide that the offence is indictable. Other offences that can be tried either way will start in a Magistrates Court and the Court will either decide that the offence is serious enough to warrant a Crown Court case (where sentences can be tougher) but the defendant also has the right to request a jury trial in Crown Court - although the government are trying to restrict this expensive practice where there is minimal legal requirement.

So do we know now? No. The first time that we know whether a jury is required is when the defendant first appears at their Crown Court hearing and enters a plea. If they plead guilty, no jury is required, only sentencing. If they plead not guilty then a jury will need to be ordered to fit the timetable for the case. Even in this case, there is some flexibility since depending on the nature of the case, the defence or prosecution might need several months to prepare. In other cases, they might be ready within a few weeks.

Either way, we cannot predict consistently more than a few weeks in advance as to which jury members we need.


I get the feeling that the current system of Juries worked a lot better in a different time where there were fewer single parents (and those that were almost certainly weren't on a voting register), where you had one breadwinner in each house i.e. someone else to hold the fort while you were away and, dare I say, less jury trials and more summary judgments. This quite rightly begs the question as to whether the list of people who are excluded from jury service, currently: People in the justice system, people in the armed forces, mentally ill people, not an English speaker as well as some random historical ones like Lighthouse Keepers and certain guilds!

Perhaps single parents should be exempted? Perhaps people who earn less than a certain amount be exempted because they cannot afford to pay for alternative arrangements? Perhaps the self-employed should be exempted?

The problem with this approach, as with many similar governmental areas is that it is both very expensive to keep the list, hard to keep it up to date, hard to enforce and therefore is very easy to game the system and reduce the number of potential jurers massively. There are thousands of people who do business as sole-traders and do jobs for cash, paying other employees but not paying all of their tax, NI, insurance and other employee costs - there is no reason to think the same wouldn't apply to jury service lists.

Averaging or Maximising

Another two ways we can approach this issue is to predict on averages. If the Court needs on average, say, 2400 jurers per month, then we could book in that many people. This is less than ideal because if the Court is busy that month, some people still get a last minute request. If the Court is quieter then spare jurers can be sent home - more on that next.

To avoid ever having people on short notice, a similar method to averaging is instead to take the maximum number of jurers that the Court could ever need. If it has, say, 4 Court rooms and could handle 2 cases per week each, then 96 jurers could be booked and then sent home if not required. Clearly, this solves the issue of notice because you would always have as many or more than you need present at the Court room but being sent home is not always as practical as it sounds.

Imagine you are self-employed and have turned down a job because of jury service, only to be cancelled or sent home? I'm guessing they wouldn't pay you for the week's work you've missed - you would be miffed. At least if you did the jury service it would have meaning. Likewise, maybe you had to pay a contractor to cover you at work during a busy period and then get told that you are not needed but are still £5000 worse-off because of the cover. Although short notice is not ideal, long notice with cancellation is equally not ideal.

Another issue with maximising is the numbers of jurers involved. Sure, a Court might need 96 jurers per week, but in reality, it is probably closer to 12. Since people are picked at random, choosing 96 people per week from the area might mean that you are called several times over the course of a few years - each time being sent home. Compare that to only calling as many as you need - it is short notice but you know you will be used (excepting a last-minute guilty plea!) and most people I have spoken to have either never been called or have been called once.

I don't think the system is perfect but it seems to be probably best-fit for most people.


These are the kinds of problems that can make somebody rich because if you can see a better solution, using AI, predictions, psycology, flexibility or whatever then invent a system and suggest it to the HM Court Service. If it works, they will love you forever!
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