Pilot programme to provide additional support to juries in Crown Courts welcome and should be extended to Coroner’s courts

20 May 2024

In this article pupil barrister Dharsha Jegatheeswaran outlines the government’s plans for a pilot programme providing additional support to jurors in select Crown Courts and argues for its extension to Coroner’s courts. Dharsha is a second-six pupil and accepts instructions in crime, housing and inquests.

On May 8, 2024, the government announced a pilot programme that will provide jurors in certain Crown Courts with additional support in the form of access to free counselling and a 24/7 helpline.

Jurors in criminal trials are regularly exposed to distressing evidence and deal with making difficult and heavily weighted decisions. The advancement of technology and the use of CCTV have increased the graphic nature of evidence which has also made the experience of jurors more harrowing in certain instances. Exposure to distressing evidence can lead to jurors experiencing vicarious trauma.  Vicarious trauma arises from exposure to trauma indirectly such as through witnessing after the fact. This can arise out of a number of roles played by the jury in exercising their functions: watching CCTV or body worn footage of a traumatic incident or hearing from live witnesses/victims/alleged perpetrators. Yet at the moment, jurors are not provided with any pre-trial or post-trial preparation or support that would help them navigate these experiences.

The pilot programme arises out of efforts made by Baroness Berridge, and Dr. Hannah Fawcett and Dr. Matt Brooks, Senior Lecturers in Forensic Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Research by Dr. Fawcett and Dr. Brooks found that jurors would often experience anxiety, sleepless nights and flashbacks. They noted in their research that 50% of all jurors experienced some form of trauma.

For the roll-out of the pilot this summer, the scheme is only being extended to 15 Crown Courts. However, there appears to be no good reason for the scheme not to be piloted in Coroner’s courts as well as the Criminal courts. Inquests inherently consider difficult and traumatic evidence as they aim to investigate the circumstances of an individual’s death. Many coroners have been sensitive to the issue of juror distress and have taken pragmatic case management decisions when admitting any evidence that might be distressing, such as limiting the amount of footage to be watched by seeking to provide the jury with an agreed chronology, or ‘stills’ from footage rather than subjecting them to watching the real video.

However, this often leads to a tension between the need for the jury in an inquest to have an accurate view of the evidence (which sometimes cannot be reduced to words in a way that does justice to the thrust of the evidence) and the risk of potentially distressing them. As held in the case of Jamieson [1995] QB 1:

“It is the duty of the Coroner as the public official responsible for the conduct of inquests, whether he is sitting with a jury or without to ensure that the relevant facts are fully, fairly and fearlessly investigated…

He must ensure that the relevant facts are exposed to public scrutiny particularly if there is evidence of foul play, abuse or inhumanity. He fails in his duty if his investigation is superficial, slipshod or perfunctory. But the responsibility is his. He must set the bounds of the inquiry” (26)

Unfortunately, exposing foul play, abuse or inhumanity to public scrutiny does often require jurors to see potentially traumatic material. A scheme that would provide additional psychological support to jurors during and following an inquest, could ensure that their wellbeing is considered, without needing to necessarily compromise on the evidence being put forward. This of course would not greenlight the unnecessary inclusion of gratuitous evidence, but could provide a safeguard enabling the inclusion of important and relevant, but distressing evidence.

In recent years there has been growing awareness about the vicarious trauma those who interact with the legal system regularly may experience and this pilot is a helpful step in the right direction of developing a more trauma-informed legal process.

To learn more about the scheme please see here.

Dharsha thanks Angelina Nicolaou and Rachel Francis for their input while drafting this article.

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