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It goes without saying that being a juror can be stressful, particularly in offence against the person cases where jurors may be subjected to a range of graphic imagery depicting injury and death. Added to this, recent technological advances in 3D printing processes allow jurors to examine highly detailed physical replicas of human skeletal remains. This additional haptic processing of traumatic evidence provides a more personal, intimate, and potentially traumatic engagement with victims as jurors can directly touch victim injuries. Prior trauma amongst individual jurors may be raked to the surface as they are forced to confront triggering content in court, adding an extra layer of trauma to jury duty. Certainly, past research shows that jurors prefer less detailed and less realistic representations of post-mortem photographs as more realistic evidence triggers stronger negative emotional responses. Stress arises not solely from hearing this difficult trial content; the process of concentrating on new and complex trial information leads to tiredness and stress. Once the jury retires to deliberate a new source of stress emerges; the weight of the verdict decision. Whilst it is reassuring to see individuals taking jury duty seriously, concern over attaining the ‘correct’ verdict plays on juror’s minds long after cases are concluded and jury duty ends.
The impact of juror duty
Jurors can expect to experience adverse cognitive, emotional, behavioural, physical, and spiritual reactions to jury duty, with up to half of all jurors experiencing trauma in the form of headaches, sleep disturbances, isolation, PTSD symptoms, and depression. Trauma symptoms can cause significant impairment to the person’s overall adjustment and persist for decades if left untreated. It is therefore clear that jury duty may be associated with considerable vicarious trauma, which can have long term and profound negative impact on individual juror’s health, wellbeing, and lifestyle. A good understanding of the mechanisms of juror trauma, and appropriate psychological support is therefore essential in limiting long term negative outcomes for jurors. Supporting the wellbeing of jurors is not only positive at an individual level but is essential is promoting good juror decision making; stress negatively affects information encoding and retrieval. More specifically, traumatic evidence increases the likelihood of guilty verdicts irrespective of the probative value of the evidence presented.
Support for jurors
Jurors in England and Wales are prohibited from any disclosure of juror deliberations. Fear of legal sanction can prevent jurors from discussing all aspects of the case with family and friends and therefore deprive them of an important source of support. Not only are jurors isolated from family support, formal support through the courts is also lacking. Currently support for jurors in England and Wales consists of signposting to their GP and the charity Samaritans. With NHS mental health support service overstretched, jurors may struggle to access timely support, and arguably the Samaritans are unable to provide the consistent psychological support needed in the aftermath of a traumatic case. It is therefore unsurprising that the criminal justice system has been accused of failing in its duty of care for jurors.
How can we tackle juror trauma?
The question of supporting jurors to cope with the distressing nature of jury duty is not simple and significant changes and improvements to services are likely to take time. However, strategies can focus on three broad domains; pre-trial, concurrent to the case, and post-trial.
Support within trials could take the format of more clear preparation for jurors on the type of distressing content they may encounter within trials, and guidance on coping strategies that can be implemented as the trial progresses. For example, guidance on recognising their own anxiety and stress, coupled with information on coping strategies (such as mindfulness skills and breathing techniques) are already provided in some states in the US and could be adapted into practice in England and Wales. Within the trial itself, research is essential to discover which modalities and approaches to information presentation minimise trauma, and which are likely to exacerbate it. Mental health specialists within court could help jurors verbalise their anxieties, implement self-help strategies, and provide ongoing support throughout the trial. Following the conclusion of trials, debriefing sessions to help jurors understand their experiences could be an effective immediate solution. In addition, funding for court appointed counsellors and psychologists would help negate long NHS waiting lists and ensure jurors receive focused and timely mental health support for as long as it is required.
Juror trauma has a significant negative impact on individual wellbeing and the administration of justice. More research to better understand the challenges, reactions, and effective mechanisms for combatting juror trauma is essential. There are no overnight solutions but funding for research and psychological support to tackle juror stress and trauma can and should be a priority for the criminal justice system.