Over 70s? At your (jury) service.

Did you know that in Northern Ireland, my neck of the woods, approximately 25,000 people are randomly selected from the Electoral Register to potentially be called for jury service every year? If selected as a jurior, you would receive a letter called a jury notice, and will have to complete a Form of Return.

Let’s delve into the role of the juror a bit more.

From where does jury service originate? Well, the English jury has its roots in two institutions that date from before the Norman conquest in 1066. The ‘inquest’, as a means of settling a fact, had developed in Scandinavia, whilst Anglo-Saxon law had used a ‘jury of accusation’ to establish the strength of the allegation against a criminal suspect. In the latter case, the jury were not triers of fact and, if the accusation was seen as posing a case to answer, guilt or innocence were both determined by oath, sometimes in the form of trial by ordeal. During the 11th and 12th centuries, juries were sworn to decide property disputes but it was the Roman Catholic Church’s 1215 withdrawal of support for trial by ordeal that necessitated the development of the jury in its modern form.

Now, in the 12th century, Henry II took a major step in developing the jury system. Henry II established a system to resolve land disputes using juries. A jury of twelve free men were assigned to arbitrate in these disputes. Unlike the modern jury, these men were charged with uncovering the facts of the case on their own, rather than listening to arguments in court. Henry II also introduced what is now known as the ‘grand jury’, and which saw a jury of free men charged with reporting any crimes that they knew of in their hundred to a ‘justice in eyre’, a judge who moved between hundreds on a circuit. A criminal accused by this jury was given a trial by ordeal (it was rather a favourite back in the day, wasn’t it.). Under the jury, the chances of being found guilty were much lower, as the king did not choose punishment nor verdict.

As previously mentioned, the Catholic Church banned participation of clergy in trial by ordeal in 1215. Without the legitimacy of religion, trial by ordeal could not endure. The precuser to the grand jury soon began to determine guilt as well as providing accusations. The same year, trial by jury became a fairly explicit right in one of the most influential clauses of Magna Carta. Article 39 of the Magna Carta reads:

No free man shall be captured or imprisoned or disseised of his freehold or of his liberties, or of his free customs, or be outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against him by force or proceed against him by arms, but by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the

Over time, the existance and role of the jury became an integral part of the court system in England, which was implemented in the British Empire and its colonies.

Fun fact: did you know women first served on juries in England in 1920?

That’s our history lesson for now, so now let us move on to the practicalities of jury service.

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service (NICTS) normally posts jury notices to those lucky, selected people in February/ March of each year. If you are so fortunate to receive a jury notice, it means you could be called for jury service at any time during a 12 month period from the beginning of July, to the end of June the following year. Now, if you are selected at random for jury service during this period of time, you will receive a jury summons. This provides further information, including where and when you are required to attend to meet your legal obligations as a juror. Moreover, the jury summons will give you at least 10 days’ notice to enable you to make arrangements to attend, however the office will always try to give longer notice were this is possible.

And finally: if you are on the list of potential jurors in Northern Ireland, you will receive a juror notice pack. This pack will provide you with additional information on the jury service process, and a form you need to complete called the ‘Form of Return’. A Form of Return is required, because the Electoral Office does not retain all the information the Court needs to know about you. This includes:

  • if you are retired,
  • your job, and
  • if you have any criminal convictions.

Okay Leah, I hear you say. Why are you suddenly fascinated by jury service? Well fret not – there is indeed a reason. (Although I have always wanted to receive a jury summons. Perhaps in the future?)

My current fixation with jury service derives from a news story I recently read: the Ministry of Justice announced that the upper age limit of jurors will rise to 75 from December. This has been decided upon in a move to reflect longer life expectancies. It is believed that this will enable more people in retirement to participate in their civic duty, and spread the load of the jury system over a wider pool of eligible citizens.

The Ministry of Justice’s intention to increase the age limit was initially announced two years ago, and will now come into force on the 1st December 2016. The Ministry made sure to emphasise that, as with everyone selected for jury service, those over 70 can apply to be excused if they feel incapable of carrying out their duties.

Justice minister Sir Oliver Heald QC said it was important that juries reflect society. He submitted that trial by jury is a “fundamental part” of the British justice system, and that:

“People are living longer, healthier lives, so it is right that our courts are able to benefit from the wisdom and experience that older people can offer…”

The previous cut-off age was 70; the youngest age at which people can serve remains 18. This is not the first time that the decision to increase the age has been made. In 1988, the maximum jury age was increased to 70 from 65.

I am uncertain as to whether this decision will be implemented in Northern Ireland, for I have not heard of any move to adopt this, or to consider it going forward. Thus for now, this increase will apply only to England and Wales.

It is estimated that around 178,000 people currently complete jury service in England and Wales each year. By increasing the age limit, it is estimated another three million people will be added to the pool of eligible jurors.

I have to say that I do not see reason not to raise the age limit in a society where people are living longer and are generally fitter. In fact, I would say that this decision highlights the vital role older people play in society. I feel that too often older people are forgotten about, or not fully considered by society. This decision shows that older people have life experience, and will provide a valuable voice and contribution to jury sevice and jury deliberations.

Sarah Rochira, older people’s commissioner for Wales, said the increase will help to “challenge negative assumptions about older people” and ensure they can continue to contribute to society.

Jane Ashcroft CBE, chief executive of older people’s charity Anchor, said:

“Older people already contribute a great deal to society and represent an integral part of any local community.The knowledge and experience of older people is invaluable and I’m pleased that more will now be able to share their wisdom by contributing to the criminal justice system.”

Moreover, it should be noted that the retirement age for magistrates and judges is 70. If it has now been determined that citizens over 70 are fit enough to serve on a jury, is there a mischevious argument to be made that magistrates and judges should be allowed to continue in their roles until 75 should they wish to do so?

On that note, I’ll leave you. I will resume my hopeful longing to receive a jury summons – maybe if this decision is implemented in my region, I might have an additional five years to see if my hopes come true!

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