Secret E-Diary - May 2013

Prospective jury members had better make their excuses good if they want to wriggle out of performing their time-honoured duty

April 8, 2013: Jury: A group of 12 people, who, having lied to the judge about their health, hearing, and business engagements, have failed to fool him – Henry Louis Mencken

Last week, the jury was selected in the sensational trial of Jason Grimble and Moses Lane for the alleged murder of the disliked Claude Allerick, formerly one of Her Majesty’s (Circuit) Judges and sometime member of Gutteridge Chambers. A last-minute reprieve had come when our previously assigned judge finally read at night in bed one page too many of the voluminous Criminal Procedure Rules and slipped a disc. Fate then gave us the lovely Jonathan Hay to try our case and the deceptively relaxed George White QC, of Treasury Counsel, to prosecute us.


Problems remained, however. We were in a cut-throat defence with Moses Lane, who is represented by another former Gutteridge tenant, Rico Smyth QC. Happiest behind the wheel of the latest Porsche with an attractive blonde in tow, he had a certain vicious streak that alternately fascinated and repelled jurors. Nevertheless, he often won.

My junior, Henrietta Briar-Pitt, and I first went to the Old Bailey cells on the lower ground floor. This was the inevitably depressive and anxious phase of our meetings with Jason Grimble, after the early and cheerfully optimistic sessions. He set the tone by asking what I thought he would get if he went down. Thanks to the last government, the answer was “one hell of a lot”. There is no specific statutory sentence for murdering an ex-judge (however unpopular) unlike those forms of aggravating behaviour that get you the 30- or 25-year minimum sentences. However, I had a funny feeling that special features would miraculously be found to get us up there: frail and vulnerable elderly man (retired old buzzard) living in an isolated community (the Temple) known to be eerily empty in the holidays (everyone in the country) brutally killed (humanely despatched) after a life of service to his country (banging everybody up with excessive zeal). Hetty dealt with our youthful client antiseptically. “Come along,” she said, “plenty of time for tears later, if we need them.”

We arrived in court punctually for the traditional game-show of Select-a-Jury. The rules: a large number of people are massed by a bureaucratic press-gang to see if they can state any good reason why they should not serve as jurors for a trial likely to last longer than their two-week jury service. Seasoned campaigners know that the key is to find an excuse categorised as approved: namely a pre-booked holiday, a critical health or family problem or insoluble problems at work. Sadly, the one that most people plump for is that the boss will not be happy. That is not a winning answer. Parliament has provided that “bosses” can lump it when it comes to employees serving on juries and there is, what Andrew my senior clerk calls, “magnum scandalatum” if employers try to intimidate employees into resisting jury service.

A miserable line of poor creatures paraded their excuses before the judge in an English variant of what US lawyers call “approaching the bench”, while a few fatalists just gave up in advance and took their seats in the jury box. One man was removed for being weird – an unofficial category of unsuitable juror. This actually wins the jackpot, in that you get sent home for good without any jury service at all. He was a middle-aged man, bearing an unsettling resemblance to Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of John Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place. He asked in a loud stage whisper if the case was going to be “gory” – a word he pronounced with particular relish. George White stood up and said in grave tones: “stand by for the Crown!” No-one ever quite knows what this means, but we all know what it is for. There were no objections. He was a psycho or a consummate actor – either way, he deserved the star prize.

After a day’s grace to give the selected jury panel a chance to think up better excuses overnight with help from family and friends – a recent improvement adding to the suspense – we swore them in as jurors the following day. A higher proportion affirmed than I would have wished. It often betrays a dangerous combination of thought and self-importance, potentially unhelpful to a defendant. One juror tried to raise renewed objections to serving, but, fortunately, his command of English was so poor that the judge failed to understand him.

Then, in the twinkling of an eye, our jury had been put in charge. We sat back in the stalls as the judge uttered the time-honoured words: “Yes, Mr White.” We were off…

William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.