How jury duty made a criminal out of me

I was summoned for jury duty. I was actually pretty happy about it. I looked forward to the experience and was enthusiastic about playing a part in the justice system. The reality if it left me bitter and fuming.

The first problem was the details of the case itself. We were informed in writing in advance that the case was expected to last for six months. There would be no payment for the first 11 days, followed by compensation of $40 dollars afterwards.

I am self-employed. I write for clients across the web, and if I do not produce, I don’t get paid. Worse, if I don’t provide content for the businesses I work for, someone else will. A six-month absence from my work would cost me my existing clients.

So, there’s no way I could do it. Still, when summoned for jury duty, you have to show up and make a case for being excused. Otherwise you can be found to be in contempt of court.

I went to the courthouse on the assigned day.

When you arrive, you empty your pockets and go through an airport-like metal detector and security screening. Then you are told to take your summons paperwork to the jury room, where the jury constable finds your name in a binder and marks you present.

Afterwards, you take a seat in the courtroom, waiting for the lawyers and the judge to arrive. We were told to arrive before 8:30am. It was after 10:30 before anything actually happened. The court services officer told us all to put away our laptops, tablets, and smartphones. “I know you love your toys…” She said in a sing-song voice as if she were talking to a room full of children. “I know you love your toys, but Her Honour will be here in ten minutes, so you need to put them away now.”

Toys? These are grown men and women trying to keep in touch with their real work while nothing is happening here. Jury duty involves long periods of time being led into and out of the courtroom as lawyers and the judge confer.

“Remember,” said the clerk still in her weird uptalking lilt, “Her Honour represents The Crown. She is the Queen’s emissary and must be treated with deference.”

Who is that even for? Talk about the solemnity of the legal system, or the burden of responsibility deserving respect. But the Crown? Sorry, that has no impact for me.

Finally, Her Honour, the defence lawyers, the accused, the prosecutors, and various other court officials enter and are introduced. The first chance to get out of jury duty is at this point if anyone on the panel has any connection with any of the parties involved or intimate knowledge of the case. I had none.

After a break we are led to another large office style room, where we was given the opportunity to make a case for being excused to a court officer. The ancient civil servant made the rounds person by person. When he finally reached me, I told him that I was the bread-winner for my family and self-employed. There was no way I could do it.

“What?” He said loudly, holding a hand to his ear, indicating that he couldn’t hear.

I repeated myself.

“We’ll need a letter from your employer stating that you will lose your job.”

“I don’t have an employer. I work for myself.”

“What?” Again with the ear.

“I don’t have an employer. I’m self-employed.”

“Someone’s got to be paying you. Get something on their letterhead. We can’t just take your word for it.” And with that he had moved on the next person.

Letterhead? What year is this? Aren’t more and more people contract workers and self-employed now? I considered asking one of my clients to provide me an official letter stating that they would not pay me if I produced no work for them. But that just seemed absurd.

They can’t take my word for it. That I would lose my house and be unable to feed my family if I had to spend six months away from a precarious freelance career. For my civic duty to Her Honour and The Crown. I wanted to set the building on fire.

They think I am most likely a dishonest person who doesn’t want to be there – but despite that they want me on a pool determining the guilt or innocence of the accused.

I considered just not showing up the next day, but there are potential fines or even jail time for skipping out on jury duty. Plus, I didn’t want the feeling that I was outside of the law hanging over my head indefinitely.

I went back and lied to the judge. The trial required a bilingual jury, which was probably why I was selected in the first place. I grew up in Montreal and Sherbrooke, Quebec and have a master’s degree from a French university.

Still, I stood at the microphone the next day of court and said, “I’m sorry your honour, I can’t do it. I don’t speak a word of French.”

She looked annoyed and skeptical. Many of us were using this excuse. Still, after a breath Her Honour said, “Fine. You’re dismissed.”

I got the hell out of there.