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Jurors: Mental Health Impact

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the emotional, psychological and mental health impact on jurors of sitting in serious criminal trials.

My Lords, research into the impact of jury service has found that most people enjoy their service and find the experience interesting and informative. We know that some people can find it distressing. Anyone feeling this way is encouraged to contact their GP, who can put them in touch with the necessary support services. We are currently looking at options, including providing guidance to courts, to explore what more can be done.

I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for that Answer but there are now increasing reports in the media of those having adverse reactions to the evidence that they are hearing, and the type of evidence they are having to hear is more graphic and often video footage. Will my noble and learned friend outline whether there are plans to have a proper systemic review of a court centre and talk to jurors before, and particularly after, their experience to see whether people are being adversely impacted by doing jury service?

My Lords, the latest research was done by Professor Cheryl Thomas in 2020: 81% of those who had served on a jury said that they would be “happy to serve again”; 78% found it “interesting”. At the same time, it is quite true that 42% found the experience “stressful”. It is an issue, and the department is exploring options. What shape those options will take—whether there should be some sort of counselling service, whether it should be authorised by a judge and who would provide it—are all questions currently under consideration.

Does the Minister agree that everything depends on the nature of the trial? If you are asking jurors to hear a case involving graphic evidence of sex abuse, it really is not good enough to say that, if they are troubled, they can go to their GP. The same is surely true of the judges who have to hear such cases on a regular basis, it is true of the court staff and it is also true of the counsel and solicitors who specialise in this area. Really, something needs to be done about this.

My Lords, as I say, the Government are exploring options. Sometimes a judge will warn jurors in advance that it is distressing and ask whether any of them wish to be discharged. There is a post-trial leaflet and an interesting video, which I watched yesterday, for jurors after the trial, which suggests what they should do if they feel stressed. Some courts of their own volition make references to local charities, and we are providing further guidance to courts on what to do in those circumstances.

My Lords, I will come to the assistance of the Minister because he has been a practitioner in the courts, as I have. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is not someone who practises in front of juries—

—but it is commonplace now for judges to say to a jury that a case is of a sexual nature or involves homicide or murder where the facts are particularly troubling and gruesome, and to ask: “If any of you have any reason why you feel could not sit on such a case, then please come forward and tell me”. You can have a juror say, “I have had an experience in my past which will make this particularly difficult”. Judges will take the opportunity to say that the juror does not have to sit. That is commonplace in serious cases now. I ask the Minister: should it not be an obligation on the Crown to inform a court and the judge who is sitting that a case may be very disturbing for jurors, so that they can step forward and withdraw from sitting as a juror on that particular case?

My Lords, I am entirely in agreement with the noble Baroness that in most cases of this kind judges will warn jurors in advance. That should generally be done, and I think it is for the judge to decide.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, raises a very important issue. We ask citizens to perform this important public service and increasingly, as she said, it can be harrowing and traumatic. At present, as the Minister said, HM Courts & Tribunals Service tells jurors only that they can consult their GP or the Samaritans, who counsel potential suicides. The noble Baroness is right that professional counselling must be available where necessary. Will the Minister arrange such counselling and ensure that its availability is known to potential jurors at the time they are summoned so that they can see what the potential dangers are and consider their position, and have the information available throughout?

My Lords, I do not think that I can add to my earlier Answer that the Government are currently considering all options. Roughly 100,000 people serve on a jury every year; most, as I have just said, find the experience interesting and informative, and the Government will keep this under close review.

My Lords, it is helpful to see what happens in Scotland. The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service provides specialist assistance in cases of particularly violent and distressing crimes. It is available in the court. It is available to jurors, who may not realise, even given the warnings that have been referred to, that the scenes they are going to have to view repeatedly as a juror as the evidence goes on are particularly distressing. Will the Minister have a look at what happens in Scotland and perhaps follow its example?

My Lords, I will gladly look at what happens in Scotland—I believe there is a service provided through NHS Lothian. I am not sure I can undertake to follow a Scottish example; Northern Ireland has a counselling association associated with its employee assistance programme. We are exploring a number of options.

My Lords, is not the criminal justice system unusual among public services because it depends on volunteers, or at least non-professionals, for the vast majority of the work? Jurors are present in our most serious cases and magistrates hear the overwhelming number of criminal cases. Will my noble and learned friend the Minister therefore ensure that His Majesty’s Government look at both these groups of non-professionals and ensure that they are given the financial and non-financial support they need?

My Lords, lay participation in justice, whether through the jury, the magistracy or, I would add, membership of tribunals, is at the heart of the common-law system and the Government will fully support that participation.

My Lords, judicial officeholders, their partners and their children are offered helpline support 24/7 for 365 days a year through the Ministry of Justice. There is no equivalent for jurors. Arguably, judicial officeholders are better placed to withstand the pressures of their role because they have the support of their peer group. When jurors leave the court, they are on their own. Does the Minister think that this should change and the Government should offer the same support to jurors as is offered to judicial officeholders?

My Lords, the Government can accept that there is a case for offering further support for jurors who have been through very distressing cases. I should perhaps observe that jurors have been trying distressing cases now for hundreds of years so we are not in a new situation. A 24-hour helpline may be one of the options that we should explore.

I ask the Minister that those who look at whether or not jurors should be helped are shown some of the sorts of photographs that jurors may have to see, because they would be pretty shocked.

My Lords, does the Minister share my concern and surprise that no one has mentioned the welfare of police officers who have to sit through hours of usually pornographic material involving children, which can have a tremendous effect on their stress levels?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, makes me think: if Boris Johnson is brought to trial, would it be possible to volunteer for the jury?

My Lords, how on earth is one supposed to answer that question? Fortunately, as far as I know, that does not arise—or it certainly does not arise yet.

Would it be offered to jurors who served on a jury in relation to the late Prime Minister? I do not think I can answer that question.

My Lords, many horrible things happen in life and have done so for decades and decades. Does the Minister believe that we need to think that people need to be a little more robust? I certainly found in the Navy when things had happened that if you asked people whether they had been affected, they would tell you they had been affected, but if you did not ask them, they just got on with their job.

My Lords, it is unusual to have so many opportunities to agree with noble Lords opposite. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord West. Although we have had a moment of levity in this Question, I respectfully remind your Lordships of what the late Lord Devlin famously said:

“Trial by jury is … the lamp that shows that freedom lives”.

The Government entirely agree with that and will support juries as much as is needed.