The Jury is Out

Now, the question is this: if you were accused in court of doing some nefarious deed, would you want to see me on the jury bench?

Well, that is not quite the question. The question is really whether or not you think that clergy should have an automatic right to be exempt from jury service if they wish it. Currently the law in Scotland is that clergy can be called for jury service but they have the right (as do a small number of people in other roles) to opt out if they choose.

The thing is, the Scottish “government” is currently carrying out a consultation exercise asking precisely this question. The consultation ends on 11 December and I was surprised to hear about it yesterday. It is the kind of thing that I think the General Synod Office might have alerted clergy to.

It is actually quite a tricky question. Undoubtedly, one wants juries to be representative of the general population. The rational behind the exemption clauses is twofold. Firstly people are automatically exempt from jury service if they have certain roles within the criminal justice system. Secondly, some people can opt out because they have roles in society that are deemed to be such that it serves the public good more to have them at work than sitting in court on a jury.

Clergy are complicated. (I know, I know). They can be involved in all kinds of ways both officially and unofficially in the justice system. Some people would think their job very necessary and others in society think them to be parasites.

Would it be acceptable to you to find that a particular priest was unable to take a funeral because they were on jury service?

Most people would accept that clergy need time away on holiday. (Though this is sometimes resented deeply too). It is also pretty hard for a lot of clergy to find cover at the moment too.

I think I am in favour of keeping the current system but I find it a harder judgement than when I first started to think about it.

The questions that the consultation raise are very interesting though and something that all kinds of people connected with the church might think about responding to.

I note in passing that Fr Dougal does not seem to be chosing to opt out this week. He might have a thing or two to say about this topic, though not of course about his actual experience.

I also note that the other roles which have the opt out include: members of the armed forces, MPs, MSPs, doctors, dentists, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and vets.

The consultation document is here. The relevent section is here.

What do you think? As the court hears what you are accused of and you raise your eyes nervously towards the jury, do you want to see me, in a clerical collar perhaps, sitting there?


  1. Good question, and I can see why the status quo is not all that bad a compromise.

    However, the angle you don’t mention is whether someone having a particular role/job/office might adversely affect neutrality: leaving you and your own collar aside, hypothetical situation: is there scope for bias if A El-Faisal esq[0] were on the jury whilst J Sachs were being tried?

    Would you trust someone of extreme background opinions to opt out of their own accord if they could not detach views fairly?

  2. I was once rejected for a jury because I was a teacher. I was then taken the next day for a particularly unsettling rape case (Glasgow High Court) and found myself the butt of sneers from other jurors when I tried to refer to evidence given – sort of “Listen to the teacher – she’ll tell us”. It was deeply unpleasant for a 24 year old, and I can recall it still. And my classes went to pot during the week as I hadn’t known how long I’d be away. I think it’s actually difficult for most people.

    And I’d have you on the jury for my trial any day – at least there would be someone listening to counsel!

  3. Fr Dougal says

    Interesting. The reason I chose not to opt out was out of a sense of civic duty. Given that I preach often that part of our discipleship is engagement with the society of which we are part, it seemed to me to be a cop out to claim clerical privilege to avoid the service. As to would you want a priest there in his dog collar judging you: I wear no collar, as I am 1st and foremost a citizen in this role and anyhow the jury selection system means you could have a practising satanist or a BNP member on the same jury. We are charged to judge only on the merits of the evidence presented. And that’s what’ll I’ll try to do.

  4. Hmm, tricky one. But I think I’d go for the status quo. Take it up if you have cover, but free to opt out if you think you, and you alone, might be needed.

    I was called when I was 21 and sat waiting to be chosen or not, in a nervous state. I whispered to the man next to me who had been on jury duty a few times, that the man who had just entered the dock looked pretty guilty to me. “That’s the Press box,” he muttered.

  5. David |Dah • veed| says

    I am waiting for the day that we have a legal system with juries!

  6. Robin says

    It would have been even trickier in the old days, when you might have found yourself on a jury when someone was being tried on a capital charge and a guilty verdict might have led to the death sentence. That would have placed a priest in a very difficult situation indeed.

  7. Thank you all for your comments.

    David – thank you for reminding us of what we have here.

    Robin – you are quite right. I note in passing that the last person to be hanged in public in Glasgow was a member of my congregation and had the Rector (this was before St Mary’s became a Cathedral) by him on the scaffold.

  8. Apologies in advance, this is going to be a long comment!

    I don’t think that the clergy, or anyone else for that matter, should have the right to decide for themselves on an ad hoc basis whether they will agree to serve on a jury when called. Either your role in society is such that ex-officio you are barred (such as criminal justice system employees as mentioned by Kelvin) because you might reasonably be considered to be biased against the accused, or you are eligible to perform your public duty. As an aside, my own personal opinion is that anyone with a criminal record should also be barred from serving, as it can be reasonably considered that they are likely to be biased the other way, and predisposed to reject anything the police have to offer by way of evidence, but that’s perhaps an argument for another day. As another complete aside Kelvin, I like your quotation marks round the word “government” as that’s how I consider them too!

    In reality, I would guess that there’s a fair chance that when the actual empanelling of the jury was happening (the selecting of the members of the jury for a particular trial from the large pool of people called that day) then if a member of the clergy was called forward the defence, as is their right, may object and the clergy person would be sent back to their seat. Both defence and prosecution have the right to object to a certain number of jurors, without giving a reason, and they do exercise this right. The defence might try to reject respectable people, and the prosecution might try to reject, well, you know what I mean! They know who you are when you’re sitting there waiting, so the objections are normally fairly quick after the name is drawn.

    A number of years ago, in a previous life, I was called for jury duty at the High Court of Justiciary in Glasgow, and I was subsequently selected for a murder trial jury. I cannot go into details of the case, the evidence, the discussion in the jury room, or even the verdict, the law does not allow the deliberations of a jury to be made public, and I have no intention of exposing to the world at large any verdict to which I was a party, whether the accused was found guilty, not guilty, or not proven (a peculiarly Scottish verdict which can be translated as “go away and don’t do it again”) and whether the case was high profile or one of the countless ones involving ordinary average Joe, or Josephine, Public.

    Anyway, the point is that when I was called I was not particularly thrilled by the prospect, and even less so when I was selected, but the whole thing, with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, was a valuable experience, a chance to see into lives very different from my own and from anyone I knew, and most importantly the chance to do my public duty, put something back into society, and allow a fellow member of the public to exercise their right to a trial by their peers.

    My opinion therefore is that the very small percentage of the population who are in jobs/roles in society where they would be likely to be biased one way or the other, or could be pointed at later by the losing side as being the reason they lost, thus for example introducing the possibility of a conviction being overturned on a technicality, should not be allowed to sit on a jury. Not given the personal choice. Disallowed. And being a member of the clergy doesn’t, in my humble opinion, bring a person into the disallowed category. Unless you’re also a Special Constable, of course!

  9. Elizabeth says

    Can I ask what the quotation marks around government indicate?

    Students are also allowed to opt out, as I have recently discovered. I would be most happy to have clergy on jury, but I think, unhappy for them not to be at a funeral. Key workers I think, especially given difficulty of arranging cover.

  10. The quotes around “government” indicate that I think that Scottish Executive was a more appropriate term.

  11. However there are a lot of key workers so should there be an automatic opt-out for all of them (New York State had so many automatic opt-outs that it was difficult to find jurors)? Hardship opt-out on a case by case basis might be best (some people might be able to serve on a short trial but not a long one). Are Scottish juries sequestered or would a cleric on a jury still be able to do Sunday services and weekend funerals/weddings?

  12. I’m entertained that Erp seems to think that funerals (or indeed Sunday services) are events that clergy could just turn up to and take.

    Perhaps my original question should have been, would you be happy for a relative’s funeral to be taken at a weekend with very limited contact with the person conducting the service because the clergy person had been on jury service.

    Scottish juries do sometimes get sent to a hotel, but I don’t think this is terribly common.

  13. I don’t think you can just turn up for a funeral (though I have heard of horror stories about ministers who didn’t know the name or praised a deceased atheist as godfearing) and I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to do a full time job and jury duty. However I believe some clergy (not all) have a bit more leeway working outside of standard working (and jury) hours for stuff that must be done by that particular cleric in person and not by a substitute. In contrast let us say to a construction worker who has to work set hours which usually coincide with jury hours. I suspect family might be willing for a weekend funeral and evening meetings if it means they could get their favorite priest just as they might be willing to wait a day or two if he was in hospital for surgery or on vacation. Of course I could be wrong.

    Now whether I would want a cleric on the jury is another matter. Are you the sinners in the hands of an angry God type or somewhat more irenic (I believe you are the latter)? Am I the victim or the person in the dock?

    Also how exactly does the law define ‘clergy’? Does it include people who are ordained but don’t currently have a position such as provost? Does it include non-Christian clergy?

    p.s. Don’t forget to treat that cold carefully. My last bout of flu was in Scotland and it laid me flat out for several days and weak for several weeks.

  14. Robin says

    > The quotes around “government” indicate that I think that Scottish Executive was a more appropriate term. <

    And this from a priest of a church which spent almost the entire eighteenth century not recognising the Union?

    Oh for those happy days, when the Scottish Episcopal Church was the SNP at prayer!

  15. Unless the Scotland Act 1998 has been amended or repealed whilst I’ve been off sick, I think the proper legal name is still the Scottish Executive.

  16. Elizabeth says

    Thanks for the clarification.

  17. Robin says

    Kelvin, to an old-fashioned Episcopalian the Scotland Act 1998 has no validity because it hasn’t received the assent of King Francis. Indeed, no valid Acts have been passed since King James VII’s time, which is rather nice – and you yourself, of course, as a clergyman of the de jure Established Church are entitled to St Mungo’s Cathedral and all its ample ancient revenues. You can buy us a drink from the proceeds.

  18. I’d be inclined to think that things should be left as they are, and leave it to individual clerics to weigh up their sense of civic responsibility against their immediate duties to their flock (notably, funerals and other services).

    Having said that, my own limited experience would suggest that jurors with certain addresses and occupations are very frequently rejected, which wastes everybody’s time.

  19. For a different example of conflict between public duty and religious conscience, see

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