06/11/2007 - 22:00

Jury's out on this social 'duty'

06/11/2007 - 22:00

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This column is not about the forthcoming election, but I do have to kick off with a story about voting.

I used to hold strongly the opinion that voting shouldn’t be compulsory. It seemed at odds to me that a democracy should force people to the polling booth.

However, I changed that opinion when, after some debate, a friend pointed out that with rights came responsibilities. One of those responsibilities was to turn up at the ballot box.

It was, the argument ran, just like jury duty. To me, that was the clinching point; compulsory jury duty is a responsibility I agree with.

In some ways these two responsibilities are very closely aligned. At election time we are all expected, as a community, to turn out and make a decision on who should govern us.

Yet every day, groups representative of the community as a whole are asked to turn out on our behalf and make decisions regarding justice – 5,900 in 2006-07, to be precise, from 11,700 who attended and 48,000 who were summonsed.

So it was interesting to hear recently how difficult it is becoming for the justice system to find jurors.

According to the Sheriff’s Office (such a great name), the number of people seeking to be excused from jury duty has increased markedly in recent years, to almost 76 per cent from about 67 per cent 10 years ago.

I am no angel in this respect, I have to say. In a small, growing business where every resource is needed, I have at times found the idea of adding jury service to the list of demands inopportune, if not overwhelming.

I’m sure there are many in businesses small and large who feel the same way.

In small business you are regularly making do with what you’ve got already. When someone takes a holiday, everyone shoulders the burden.

The same can be said of bigger organisations, which typically operate as a series of interlinked smaller groups.

A holiday is something we all want. Jury duty doesn’t appear to offer people much in the way of excitement.

But the statistics on jury duty and a long conversation with acting deputy sheriff, Carl Campagnoli, have made me question this attitude.

Mr Campagnoli said resistance to jury duty from employers appeared to be increasing, particularly in large organisations.

“Big businesses have a policy not to allow people to attend jury duty,” he said, adding this was anecdotal evidence from following up with people who sought to be excused and often admitted they were pressured to do so.

This was not, I might add, just limited to the private sector.

The issue behind this is fairly simple. Business should not only be seen to be supporting the community, it is in its own best interests to do so.

Just as businesses benefit from roads and communications built for the community, so too does it need a working justice system as much as any private citizen.

Business suffers directly and indirectly from criminal behaviour and ought to want to ensure that our justice system is working smoothly.

Before this sounds like too much of a rant, it might be worth adding that I do understand the lean nature of all organisations – be they business or government – means that sparing someone for even a few days can cause hardship.

And while the Sheriff’s Office suggests the average trial was just 3.3 days, there is always the risk that turning up at court may involve a time commitment a little longer than that.

As a business journalist, I covered a few long trials that were exasperating enough even as one who could walk out the door when the eyelids started to get heavy. I always wondered how jurists could keep their attention fixed on intricate corporate detail over weeks or even months.

Some defendants hope they can’t, I’m sure.

But that’s the luck of the draw.

At the very least, the state is willing to reimburse the jurist, if they go unpaid, or their business if it maintains the wage or salary of the individual.

This is not a token gesture. Of course, in these days of a skills shortage, being reimbursed does not mean businesses can always find someone to fill the vacancy on a temporary basis.

There is also the minor issue of who is eligible. The list of exempt professions seems as long as your arm and, in this day and age, does make you wonder if the law isn’t making life hard for itself as it becomes obvious that getting juries together is increasingly difficult.

Health professionals, for example, have the right to be excused. That may well have been a select and important few in days gone by, but these days they represent a huge proportion of the working population and often work in areas well short of life-saving importance.

There is almost no reason why any normal working person ought to be exempt – barring the police, naturally.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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