What is the Process of Jury Duty?

In Queensland, juries have the role in determining the outcome of a case of both civil and criminal trials. In a criminal trial, there are 12 jurors. Jurors are selected at random through a computer from the electoral roll, and potential jurors are sent a letter with a questionnaire that determines whether they are eligible to serve on a jury. When a person is selected for jury duty, they must attend court to take part in empanelment (unless they have already been formally excused).  Those who are empanelled on a Jury will then remain on that trial for its duration.

In a criminal trial, the role of the jury is to decide if the person is guilty or not guilty. They do not decide questions of law or what sentence would be appropriate as that is the role of the judge. Juries are governed by the Jury Act 1995.

Who cannot be a juror?

A person will be found to be ineligible for jury duty if they:

  • Are a member of parliament, councillor or mayor or the Governor;
  • Are a lawyer or have been a member of the judiciary;
  • Have been a police officer;
  • A detention centre employee or corrective services officer;
  • Cannot read or write English;
  • Have a disability that makes them incapable of performing the role of a juror;
  • Have been convicted of an indictable offence;
  • Are aged 70 or more, unless they have elected to be eligible for jury duty;
  • Have been sentenced to imprisonment.

Who will be excused from jury duty?

There are certain circumstances where a person can be excused from jury duty. This can either be permanently or for a particular jury service period. A person may be excused either by the sheriff or by a judge. Section 21 of the Juries Act provides that a person can be excused from jury duty if:

  • It would result in substantial hardship to the person because of the person’s employment or personal circumstances;
  • It would result in substantial financial hardship to the person;
  • It would result in substantial inconvenience to the public;
  • Others are dependent on the care of the person and suitable alternative care is not available;
  • The person’s health requires that they be excused.

Empanelment – Process of Selecting Jurors

Empanelment is a random process for choosing jurors to serve on a trial. Before the trial begins, the bailiff will take you into court for the selection process where you remain at the back of the courtroom. The process is as follows:

  1. All cards are placed into a rotating box with each potential juror’s name, town, suburb or occupation.
  2. The judge’s associate draws a card and calls out the name or number of a juror.
  3. The particular juror will then walk to the bailiff at the front of the courtroom to swear an oath or make affirmation stating they will fulfill their service as a juror.
  4. Any time before the bailiff recites the oath or affirmation, the prosecutor may say ‘stand-by’ or defence can call ‘challenge’ – this means that juror will not be selected to serve on that jury. That juror will return to the back of the court room and the process is repeated until all 12 jurors are empanelled.
  5. If a juror is selected, they are directed to a seat in the jury box.

The Prosecution and Defence each get eight opportunities to ‘stand by’ or ‘challenge’ during the empanelment process. The Juror selected will then be given some brief detail about the case and the witnesses to be called and will be asked if there is any reason they cannot serve on that particular jury or if they cannot be impartial.  This is asked again in case a Juror knows a particular witness so that they can disclose that to the Judge who will excuse them if it is an issue.  Jurors can also raise other issues personal to them about they believe they cannot serve on that Jury and the Judge will decide whether or not to excuse them. If Juror are excused during this process, the empanelment will continue to replace them so that there are 12 juror selected.

For lengthier trials it is common practice for the one or two reserve Jurors to also be empanelled. The process is the same for those additional jurors and they remain for the entire trial, however will be formally excused when the Jury retire to consider their verdict and are not allowed to be part of that process.

After Empanelment

A person who has been empanelled to serve on a jury must then attend court until the jury have reached a verdict and the judge discharges them. Some trials may take days or weeks to complete and the jurors will be given an estimate of trial at the beginning so they can plan ahead.

Before the trial starts, the judge will explain the role as a juror and how they should conduct themselves during the trial. It will be suggested that the Jury select a speaker to assist in the Jury communicating with the Court, however that speaker can change at any time and they do not have any additional power.  The speaker will simply speak on behalf of the jury in the courtroom if required.

During the Trial

All jury members will sit in the jury box and listen to all arguments presented by prosecution and defence lawyers, as well as witnesses and any other evidence to support their case. Throughout the day, there are scheduled regular breaks. Jurors cannot leave the courtroom without permission while serving on the jury.

Restriction on Communication as a juror

If at any stage of the trial, a Juror has been asked to disclose any information by any form of communication (such as in person, over the phone, on social media, text message or in writing etc.) about your service as a juror, they are required to inform the Bailiff at court who will in turn inform the Judge. Jurors are also prohibited from inquiring about the case or defendant or visiting the crime scene as this is an offence with a penalty up to two years imprisonment. Section 54 of the Juries Act states that while the jury are kept together, a person who is not a member of the jury must not communicate with any of the jurors without the judge’s leave. Contravening this section would amount to contempt of the court. Outside of the courtroom, a jury must be kept together in a private place under the supervision of a court office or otherwise as the judge directs as per section 55.

Going home/Staying Overnight

It used to be common practice for Jurors to be required to stay overnight in hotels together to consider a verdict if they were still deliberating, however this rarely occurs now.  Jury members generally return home each night during the trial. Each night a juror goes home during a trial, they will be reminded by the Judge that they are prohibited from speaking to anyone about the trial, as well as reading any information about the trial.

Reaching a Verdict

After all evidence and arguments are presented in court for the trial and the judge has summarised the case, the judge will then ask the jury to retire to make deliberations and decide its verdict. The jury will be taken to a separate jury room to consider the evidence and come to a fair and reasonable decision. Jury deliberations are confidential, so jurors cannot talk to anyone other than jury members and the bailiff. The verdict must be unanimous, meaning every jury member must reach the same verdict.

The Jury will either find the defendant guilty, not guilty, a combination of the two if there is more than one charge, or they will inform the Judge they are unable to reach a verdict.

If the Jury are unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the Judge can accept a majority verdict in certain situations, which still requires 11 jurors to agree.  If the split is greater than that the Jury will again inform the Judge they can not reach a verdict and if the Judge is satisfied they have exhausted all efforts, will discharge the panel, which will require the trial to be conducted again with a new Jury which is costly to both parties.

Juror being discharged

A judge may discharge a juror after they have been sworn in on the basis:

  • It appears the juror is not impartial
  • The juror becomes incapable of continuing to act as a juror
  • The juror becomes unavailable for reason the judge considers adequate

Section 56 states that if a juror passes away or has been discharged before the trial begins, the judge may direct for another juror to be sworn in. If there is a reserve juror, they will take the place of the juror who has been discharged. If there is not, the trial will either continue with 11 jurors or the entire panel will be discharged and the trial will re-commence with a new panel.