Authors:Lawrence Archer and Fiona Bawdon
Last updated:2024-06-28
‘One juror was so fearful after the trial, he felt he had to change jobs and move house’
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Jury trauma headlines
Ministry of Justice proposals to offer counselling to jurors after traumatic trials are as welcome as they are overdue, says former jury foreman Lawrence Archer.
The law grinds slow, but it grinds fine,’ so the saying goes. But it seems that those grinding wheels are lubricated with treacle at times – something that became evident with the breaking news that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is introducing a pilot scheme to offer jurors support after lengthy, difficult or emotionally demanding cases.1Paul Burnell/PA News, ‘Trauma counselling for jurors in distressing cases’, BBC News, 8 May 2024. Disappointingly, 20 years ago I was composing a letter to the court offices, asking for the very same thing.
In 2004, I was summoned for jury service at the Old Bailey. The case I was selected for was likely to last around three months, I was told, and came to be referred to in the popular media as the ‘ricin plot’ trial. It involved five Algerian defendants, all accused of a terrorist plot to produce poisons and explosives.
This was to be a highly charged political case. Much was riding on it for the UK and US governments and security forces, as the ‘discovery’ of ricin in a North London bedsit had ultimately been used as part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq. US secretary of state Colin Powell infamously stood in front of the UN Security Council in February 2003 arguing the case for war, claiming that ricin had been discovered in London and the plotters were part of an Iraq-based ‘terrorist network’. Prime minister Tony Blair had also weighed in, stating that ‘the arrests that were made … show this danger is present and real and with us now’. Both of those statements proved to be highly questionable.
The ricin case eventually ran for seven months. I was the foreman of the jury and we delivered our verdicts after lengthy deliberations in April 2005: we found one defendant, Kamel Bourgass, guilty on a single charge of causing a public nuisance; we found the remainder not guilty; plus, there was one charge where we couldn’t reach a decision. The judge had not allowed the press to report on the proceedings throughout the length of the trial, so all the media had to go on was a government press release, which painted a hugely different story from the one we had heard in evidence. Contrary to earlier alarming headlines, at the trial it was revealed that no ricin had ever been found, but despite this, the press was full of reports of a terrorist poison plot with possible Al Qaeda links (a red herring as the judge had not permitted the prosecution to present the ‘Al Qaeda’ evidence, as it was considered so tenuous).
However, there was also the shocking revelation that Bourgass, the single guilty defendant, had murdered a police officer, DC Stephen Oake, during his arrest and had wounded several others. At the time of the ricin plot trial, unknown to us, he was already serving a life sentence for murder. The judge had, quite rightly, enforced the media blackout to prevent the ricin plot jury from hearing this and possibly skewing their decisions.
The disclosure that we had unknowingly been sitting close to a murderer for seven months sent shockwaves through the majority of the jury, while the brutal and emotive misreporting by the media – which bore no relation to the measured evidence we had heard – disturbed others. The jurors met for a discussion soon after the trial ended and it became obvious that some were deeply disquieted by what had just been revealed: a shocking and violent murder conviction; and suggestions from some quarters, including senior police figures, that the jury had ‘got it wrong’ or been duped. All deeply worrying for some. As the jury foreman, I volunteered to write a letter to the court offices, asking if any support was available for jurors post-trial. The answer came back: we’ve been considering it for a while but sorry, there’s nothing in place at the moment.
Things got worse for one juror. He became increasingly distressed and fearful, convinced that his phone was tapped and that ‘government agents’ were paying him visits at work, feelings that had been triggered by learning about the supposed international terrorist aspect of the case through subsequent media reports. He became so obsessed with being spied on that he felt he had to change jobs and move home, for the safety of his family.
Sadly, he is not alone in jury service having a major detrimental effect on his life. While at the Old Bailey, we would often meet jurors from other cases. I got on nodding terms with one and mentioned that we’d been on our case for months on end. He looked at me sardonically before announcing that he’d been there for nearly two years as part of the jury on the Jubilee Line fraud trial. They had suffered severely: seven had had personal issues (forcing two to quit the jury entirely) and several had endured financial problems due to the low remuneration for jurors. Eventually, one juror refused to attend court completely and went on strike, causing the collapse of the whole trial.2David Leigh, ‘Jury protest forces fraud trial collapse after 2 years’, Guardian, 23 March 2005.
The Jubilee Line case may have been an extreme example, due to its length and complexity, but ordinary people who are selected for jury service routinely have to listen to horrific accounts of murder, rape, child abuse and torture, and other disturbing evidence.
As jurors, we go into the court system trying to do our civic duty, determined to uphold the law and give the best consideration to the evidence. The pressure to get it right can be intense. At the end of the case, however, there’s barely a ‘thanks and goodbye’ from the court system before being sent back to normal life. On a long case, what has become a daily job abruptly ends and we are left dangling, all sense of purpose suddenly lost. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 prevents us from discussing even the smallest details of the jury room deliberations with our nearest and dearest; those secrets must be taken to the grave. If there are mental difficulties, the best that we can currently hope for from the court is: ‘See your GP.’
Juries are a vital component of the British legal system – they are at least owed the courtesy of some support after they have done their part.
Lucy Letby case prompts Ministry of Justice to pilot trauma counselling for jurors
Jurors who experience ‘mental and emotional strain’ after hearing ‘disturbing evidence including murder, abuse and cruelty’ are to be offered free counselling as part of an MoJ pilot project starting this summer.
The MoJ announcement cites the trial of former neonatal nurse Lucy Letby, who was convicted in 2023 of murdering and attempting to murder babies in her care. Letby has been described as Britain’s most prolific serial child killer. She is currently facing a retrial on one further attempted murder charge; her application to appeal against her convictions was rejected by the Court of Appeal.
The counselling move has been welcomed by former jurors, including the foreman in the long-running ‘ricin plot’ trial (see main article), as well as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). However, it is unclear at this stage if jurors on a case like the ricin plot trial, where four of the five defendants were acquitted of conspiracy to produce poisons and explosives, would be eligible for the support on offer.
One of the barriers to jurors seeking support after a traumatic case is the prohibition on discussing any details of jury room deliberations with anyone other than their fellow jurors, due to the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
Lisa Morrison Coulthard, BACP director of professional standards policy and research, said: ‘It is vital that jurors can access appropriate mental health support without fear of prosecution, to help them process and best manage their experience.’3Campaign success as counselling scheme to support jurors launched’, BACP news release, 8 May 2024.
Under the pilot, jurors at 15 Crown courts in England and Wales, including the Old Bailey, will be offered six free counselling sessions and a 24-hour helpline for ‘triage support, advice and information’.4Pioneering free therapy pilot to support jurors’, MoJ/HM Courts and Tribunals Service press release, 8 May 2024. The project is expected to run for around 10 months.
This is the first time that the MoJ has provided therapeutic support of this kind. Generally, the most jurors contacting the courts for help after a trial could hope for would be to be told to contact their GP or the Samaritans.
According to research by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), which campaigned for such a move, jurors exposed to ‘murder case materials’ experience a fourfold increase in signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, while 50 per cent of jurors experience signs of trauma, including nightmares, intrusive memories and sleep disturbance.
Then justice minister Mike Freer said the pilot is a ‘key step in assessing how we can best support jurors, who perform such a vital civic duty, often in complex, high-profile cases’. MMU senior lecturer in forensic psychology Dr Hannah Fawcett said it recognises ‘some of the potential psychological challenges of participating in jury duty and supporting those who have been affected by distressing cases’.3
Crown courts taking part in the pilot are at Leeds, Teesside, Liverpool, Carlisle, Mold, Oxford, Luton, Winchester, Bristol, Gloucester, Nottingham and Birmingham, as well as three in London: the Old Bailey, Snaresbrook and Kingston upon Thames.5‘Pioneering free therapy pilot to support jurors’, ibid.
Fiona Bawdon
1     Paul Burnell/PA News, ‘Trauma counselling for jurors in distressing cases’, BBC News, 8 May 2024. »
2     David Leigh, ‘Jury protest forces fraud trial collapse after 2 years’, Guardian, 23 March 2005. »
3     Campaign success as counselling scheme to support jurors launched’, BACP news release, 8 May 2024. »
4     Pioneering free therapy pilot to support jurors’, MoJ/HM Courts and Tribunals Service press release, 8 May 2024. »
5     ‘Pioneering free therapy pilot to support jurors’, ibid. »