Published on February 2, 2016

What’s it actually like being a juror?

Citizens & science Participation Compass People & participation Scotland

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Dieu et mon droit, Elliot BrownAs I said in my last post, I’ve been a juror on a crown court case for the last two and a half weeks. In this second post in a series of three, I reflect on whether my experience as a juror has taught me anything that might improve the contribution of participants in deliberative public engagement processes that we run.

The three posts explore three related area:

Being a juror in a crown court is an incredibly passive experience. You’re told when to arrive and then you wait (nearly always past the time you were told). Finally someone fetches you and you traipse up to the court in single file in the manner of a very odd primary school outing. And then you get into court, sit down and listen as impassively as you can to all of the witnesses and other exchanges in court. Our judge did a good job of lightening the case as much as he could, but there’s no interaction and precious little space for humour.

The defence barrister even talked about this in his summing up. He highlighted the lack of interaction between us and the court, the fact that he had no way of knowing what evidence we wanted him to talk about and what we thought didn’t need to know. In his own summing up the judge was very clear that he didn’t think this was a problem and the court was set-up like this for a reason.

Despite it being a very strange experience and totally counter to our practice (see below), I tend to agree with the judge; by the time we got to the retiring room we had all the evidence, in the round, untainted by our own prejudices and theories. Any questions from us could have prevented this from happening.

It goes without saying that we run processes in a totally different way. They are deliberately very interactive, participants are given lots of time to listen to, engage with and ask questions about some very complex information.

We do this for a number of reasons and I think it’s instructive to think about why. In contrast to a court, the types of processes we run don’t have a binary question requiring one of only two possible answers; although we’d run a process differently even if it was a binary question. The sorts of policy questions we involve the public in are multifaceted, with multiple winners and losers. There are never right answers, only a series of more or less unpalatable policy solutions (however politicians try to dress up the black and white nature of policies during elections and in the media).

We need participants to engage their thoughts, prejudices and theories actively and openly. It is only in this way that they can develop a deliberative dialogue with other participants, learn more about other perspectives (not facts). Indeed, we nearly always find that in the process individual participants enter a dialogue with themselves, about the tensions in their own perspectives and preconceptions about particularly complex policy questions.

On one level, so far so obvious. However, on another it highlights quite starkly how the way a process is set-up will affect the outcome. A court room is designed to ensure the integrity and the legitimacy of the outcome. Our processes are designed to draw in as many perspectives on complex problems as possible in order to ensure more robust and legitimate outcomes.

It emphasises for me that the right starting point for designing any public engagement process has to be the purpose of the process itself. It is only by fully understanding why the public should be engaged that you have any hope of designing a process that what will deliver what you want it to.

Despite my comments about our passivity, once it came to the point of deliberating about the verdict our role was very clear and we had all the information we needed to make the binary (though not simple) decision. I hope citizens get to the end of processes we design with as much clarity as the jury I sat on had.

Picture Credit: Elliot Brown

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