Jo Evans, who uses a hearing aid and wheelchair, tells Disability Horizons about her recent experiences on a jury, and how accessible it really was.
This year, as a dutiful citizen, I performed my civil duty as a juror at Oxford Crown Court. I received my summons when I came back to Oxford after Christmas with my parents, and was quite looking forward to it; my only experience of court at that point had been through TV!
In a summons return form I was asked to disclose any disabilities I had that I might need assistance with, which I happily did and assumed that, as they had asked, they had the relevant aids/help/preparations available.
I called the courts the Friday before I started to make sure that my hearing would be taken care of. The answer on the phone was not reassuring. I inquired as to whether the information DVD would have subtitles; “um, I’ll have to check… no it doesn’t. But you can ask questions after.” I asked if I would be able to read the court transcripts as I went along to make sure I’d understood speech properly? “No, they are only made available afterwards to people who pay for them.” The ‘reasonable adjustments’ started to look less good at this point.
On my first day I turned up at 9am, as requested, and was signed in by a lovely security man who then took me up in the lift to the juror’s waiting room. Note the word ‘took’. I could not use the lift independently because the buttons, including the ‘lowered’ ones, were too high up. There were also some awkward doors outside the lift on the jury waiting room floor, which would prove tricky to deal with on my own.
The DVD was put on loud and luckily the actress in it had very good diction so I could hear. I explained to the jury officer my problems and she reassured me that she would be happy to tell me each day if I would be needed for the following day, so I wouldn’t have to phone for the message.
But then the second problem emerged. The jury has its own canteen (so they don’t have to mix with others who are in the trial), which is accessed via a private staircase. And, you guessed it, there was no lift.
If I wanted food (and as they were paying, yes I did!), I had to call the jury officer who would arrange for security to escort me down in the lift. This, however, meant I had to go through the public waiting area, which is where all the wigs hang out, as well as those watching the trials, including families of witnesses and defendants. I would then have to get the canteen staff to call security to come and escort me back to where I needed to be.
I felt like a dog who has to wait by the door to be let out to go for a wee. I asked the jury officer if I could see a menu and arrange for it to be brought up (a reasonable alternative, I thought). But no, they don’t do that unless it’s for jurors deliberating over lunch.
I was called and selected for a case that afternoon. Again, to get to the courts the jurors have their own staircase, but no lift! Security had to take me down in the lift, through the public waiting area, through the court and then you meet the others in the jury corridor before going back in. I felt really uncomfortable and intimidated doing this as the defendant and their family, barristers, and judge were already there and see you go through. I purposely didn’t look at the dock on the way in as I didn’t want the defence thinking I was getting any pre-conceived ideas by looking at the defendant!
Wheelchair users do not get to sit in the jurors box either, but instead at a table placed next to it. At this point I was already feeling conspicuous. Then, when I realised that the court clerk was mumbling the charges and I couldn’t hear a word – I always assumed that people in the legal world know how to speak, enunciate and project their voices – I had to signal in a panic to the usher who had a word with the judge, who turned to reassure me that they would have everyone miked up tomorrow when the case got going properly.
On day 2, knowing what was to come in terms of access, I felt slightly better. But it still wasn’t acceptable, so before I even went upstairs, I demanded to speak to the jury officer to complain about the shoddy access. “But it’s an old building,” the jury officer protested. I would like to point out that I can easily access the dining room at Christ Church College 20 yards down the road and it is 3 times as old!
I was also still worried about being able to hear, but the Jury officer assured me: “we’ll get you a loop system and I’ll try to make sure you can try it before court starts.” The hearing loop worked fine, but why on earth was it not ready for me when I was first called in?
The deliberation room was on the same level as the jury waiting room, and as you’ve probably guessed by now, my fellow jurors went up the stairs and I got escorted by the usher past everyone in the usual fashion. I am astounded that the courts are prepared to let a juror (who is probably already very conspicuous in court and also more vulnerable physically) to be singled out like this. Although I always had security with me, I felt as if I was being watched by those in the seats, and when we had finished, I insisted that my boyfriend come and walk me back from the court, just in case.
I felt that they really were pushing ‘reasonable access’ to the limits. It is not acceptable for an adult not to be able to access food independently and it is most definitely not acceptable to make the experience even more stressful for someone who is easily identifiable and physically vulnerable as it is.
Before service, they issue a ‘guide for jurors’. Why isn’t there a guide for disabled jurors detailing the facilities so they know what to expect? Photos of where you’ll sit, assistive aids that are available and how to access things such as food. The court building’s one redeeming feature was the disabled loos everywhere.
I also noticed that the public ‘gallery’ (next to the door where I entered, not on a balcony as is painted by media) was on a step, and therefore not accessible. What if a wheelchair user wanted to watch a trial? Where would they go? I also wondered if there would be adequate provisions if a wheelchair user was a witness or a defendant.
Awful crimes are tried at Crown Courts and seeing ‘justice in action’ is very interesting for many. But one crime remains unaddressed: not enabling full and reasonable access to members of the public who are more than willing to play their role in the justice system.
By Jo Evans