Jury duty: The cat will miss you is not a good excuse

An increase in longer trials caused a 75 per cent rise last year in the number of fines for people who tried to get out of jury duty without a good reason, including those who claimed the planets weren't aligned and an allergy to airconditioning.

Figures from the NSW Department of Justice reveal juries are dominated by the young, old, underemployed and the retired.

Compared with the general population in NSW, for example, there are nearly twice as many people aged 50-59 and 60-69, while there are fewer people between 30-49 than the rest of NSW.

Former criminal lawyer Julia Quilter said the complexity and length of trials had grown enormously, some lasting 12 weeks to six months, and this was making it more difficult for the courts to find jurors willing and able to serve.

In the past a sex or drug case would run for weeks. Now it could run for months, she said, adding that terrorism trials could take up to a year.

Professor Quilter was a Sydney lawyer who is now at the University of Wollongong Law School. "We are now seeing extremely lengthy trials," she said.

In 2015, 14,772 fines for not attending jury service - some for $2200 - were referred to the State Debt Recovery Office. This rose 75 per cent to 21,942 in 2016, with 13,568 fines so far this year.

On average about 250,000 people are on the jury roll each year, yet only 9000, or 3 per cent, will serve.

Because of longer trials in 2016, which usually mean more people can't serve, the sheriff's office had increased summonses (when someone on the jury pool is asked to attend court for jury selection) to 395,183 people in 2016.

While someone who attends court and is excused from duty is not called again, a person who is excused via mail or online may be called several times.

"More summonses were issued for jury service in 2016 to accommodate a number of unusually long trials," a spokesman said.

"While there was also an increase in fine referrals in 2016, the numbers have fallen this year and are consistent with 2015 levels. This shows more people are complying with their civic duties."

While the court understands that jury service can be an inconvenience to people's lives, the spokesman said it was an important civic duty to ensure the justice system is made up of a cross-section of the population and promotes a fair representation of community standards.

In addition to the length and complexity of trials, a large number of people are excluded from jury duty or have a right of exemption from jury duty, said Professor Quilter. Many professions - including lawyers, doctors, dentists, police, members of the defence and emergency workers - are either exempt or not liable to serve.

While the payment of $106.30 a day (increasing to $242.30 a day on longer trials for jurors who are employed) could be an incentive for people on lower incomes, it would not motivate those in higher-paid jobs.

Professor Quilter said it would be preferable to have juries that represented a broader section of the community, yet it was her experience that jurors took their jobs "very seriously".

"They concentrate very well, and try and follow complicated legal arguments that were difficult even for a lawyer," she said.

Calls to jettison juries in criminal trials on the grounds of presumed resistance by citizens were often based on an assumption that because people consider jury duty to be lengthy and poorly remunerated, they were unsupportive of the jury system, said pyschologist and lawyer Jane Goodman-Delahunty.

It was common for citizens to seek to delay their jury duty, yet research conducted in North America, Britain and Australia had confirmed that those who actually serve are glad they did, she wrote in a research paper in 2015.

"These assumptions are not supported by evidence," wrote Professor Goodman-Delahunty, who is based at Charles Sturt University. Her research showed84 per cent of participants either agreed or strongly agreed that jurors needed more compensation for expense. Yet 79 per cent of participants nevertheless endorsed the view that "jury service is an important civic duty", she wrote.

Lawyers reported that some members of the public arrived for jury duty in clothes or with strange haircuts they think may prompt their dismissal.

Some wear shorts and thongs, and others opt for extremely conservative clothes, with women in pearls.

A member of the public told Fairfax that someone arrived for jury duty carrying a copy of Adolf Hitler's book and manifesto Mein Kampf, ostensibly a bid to get dismissed on the grounds of holding extremist views. She doesn't know if it worked.

My dog ate my letter and other excuses

Claiming the planets weren't aligned was among the more bizarre excuses that members of the NSW public gave to avoid performing their civic duty. Other unusual examples included:

  • I am allergic to airconditioning and am scared of coming into an airconditioned room;
  • I need to look after my cat;
  • I have a public transport phobia and can't attend because there is no one to drive me to court;
  • The planets are not aligned and it's not a good fit for me;
  • I will fall asleep in the trial and my snoring will be a distraction.

A spokesperson for NSW Justice said these excuses didn't have any supporting evidence and were refused.

Who can't serve?

If you aren't on the electoral roll, you can't serve. Others who are excluded include anyone with a criminal conviction, someone who holds high office, such as the Governor-General, crown prosecutors, lawyers, police officers, members of Parliament, and anyone who has access to information about prison inmates.

Others may also seek exemption, including dentists, doctors, clergy and emergency workers.

What's a suitable excuse?

The most common reasons people are excused are illness or injury, a conflict of interest, proof that they would suffer financial hardship, and employment. Claiming the dog ate your jury letter won't work, but potential jurors can be excused if they have a proof of a pre-booked holiday, medical reasons, study commitments or care for children or others.

This story Jury duty: The cat will miss you is not a good excuse first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.