Before you could be called up for jury duty to decide the guilt or innocence of an accused, the fate of the person before the court was usually decided by a priest in the belief that God would intervene on behalf of the innocent.

Court trials before juries existed

In the past there was no presentation of evidence. Confessions could be extracted by torture. Women accused of witchcraft were thrown into lakes. If they floated, they were decreed to be witches and executed. If they sank, they were innocent.

The first record of jury decisions came shortly after the Normans invaded England in 1066, and in 1215 the phrase "by the lawful judgement of his peers" was written in the Magna Carta. But these juries were composed of witnesses who passed judgement based on what they themselves knew.

Over the next hundred years this evolved into a system of impartial juries of peers chosen at random to decide the guilt or innocence of the accused, based on evidence produced to the court.

Turning up for jury duty

So, if you have been called up for jury duty you are following a long and noble tradition. And it is far better than dunking the accused to see if they float.

You have been chosen at random and must turn up at the court on the notified day unless you have told the sheriff you are unavailable. (Please see About jury service, NSW Communities and Justice.)

Many other people whose names were chosen will also be there. Not all of you will end up having to do jury duty. You may be asked whether you can serve on a trial that could last up to six weeks. If you feel you can't spend that long, you could be asked to serve on a shorter trial.

Who can be excused from jury duty?

While serving on a jury is a serious obligation to our society and can be very interesting, some people may have reasons not to serve.

You can be excused from jury duty if it would cause undue hardship or serious inconvenience to you or your family - for example, if you are caring for children or an ill person, or you have a disability that would make you incapable of serving on a jury.

You could be excused if you are a sole trader or contractor, emergency worker, doctor, dentist or member of the clergy, or if you need to attend exams or lectures, have a pre-booked holiday or travel, don't have transport to get to court, or are unable to understand English.

Police, politicians, members of the military, lawyers and criminals can't serve on a jury.

If your inability to do jury duty is due to travel, you will need documentation to prove this. To be excused on health grounds you will need a medical certificate or a doctor's letter.

Obligations of employers and jurors

If you have a conflict of interest, some knowledge of the case or the people involved, including the lawyers or the judge, you must notify the sheriff. If you have any reason to think you may not be able to be impartial, such as being a victim of a similar crime in the past, you should tell the sheriff.

In NSW jurors are paid $106.30 per day. Jurors are also paid 30.7 cents per kilometre to travel to court. If the trial lasts longer than 11 days, jurors who are employed receive $247.40 per day.

Employers are required to pay full-time or part-time staff for the first ten days of jury service.

The NSWJury Act 1977 contains a $22,000 penalty for employers who pressure those on jury service to take leave or do overtime for work they missed while on a jury. (Please see What employers need to know, NSW Communities and Justice.)

Before the trial, the court sheriff briefs jurors on what they can and can't do. It is vital jurors never conduct their own investigations or research, or consult others outside the court. (Please see section 68C of the NSW Jury Act.)

A juror's decision must be based only on what is presented in the court room. Juror misconduct usually results in a mistrial, and the offending juror can be fined up to $5,500 and/or receive two years in jail.

Being thrown together with eleven people you have never met before to decide someone's fate won't necessarily be easy, but it is one of the greatest contributions we can make to our society.

Molly Hayter
Criminal law
Stacks Law Firm

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.