Illustration by John Watson

The psychologist working to protect jurors from trauma

Tough cases can leave mental scars on juries. Hannah Fawcett is trying to help them
July 10, 2024

There aren’t many human experiences as shrouded in secrecy as jury duty. Because jurors in England and Wales are legally prohibited from talking about their experiences, unless you’ve served on a jury you’d have little idea what it’s like to be catapulted out of everyday life and into a courtroom. 

When Hannah Fawcett, senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, realised this was the case, she decided to start talking to jurors about how the experience affected them. “There’s a tendency to treat jurors as robots,” she tells me.

Fawcett formed a group of professionals who interviewed jurors about their experience, in order to work out what needed to change. 

Some jurors in emotionally charged cases said that looking at the forensic information presented in court was difficult, but this made them feel selfish, because they didn’t know the victim. The isolation of the experience meant that many believed they were having a uniquely bad reaction.

The group’s findings had immediate results. The Ministry of Justice announced in May that it will pilot a programme in 15 courts across England and Wales that will offer jurors six counselling sessions after their trials. 

Fawcett hopes the counselling won’t have a time limit, because jurors can be affected for a long while. She also hopes the government offers counselling from therapists who understand the law around jury duty.

“They’re not allowed to talk with a therapist about a trial at all when it’s ongoing, and afterwards they can only talk about what happens in open court. They’re scared to talk about anything,” she says. 

There are many more systemic issues that counselling sessions won’t resolve, Fawcett says. For a start, only people who’ve been sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983 are excluded from jury duty. “This leaves a huge percentage of the population who experience mental health challenges who don’t meet this overarching criterion. People who’ve experienced sexual assault are called to sit on rape cases.”

There is an informal process whereby judges will ask jurors if there are any reasons why they feel they can’t be on the jury. This is their only opportunity to disclose if they think they’d find it distressing. 

“But this is often done in open court, and we know people who’ve experienced sexual abuse often don’t disclose it. And then, it’s up to the judge to decide.” 

Jurors also need to be better prepared for what to expect, Fawcett says. “Some jurors have told me there is only one set of toilets in the court, so they’re going to same toilet as the murder victims’ family, for example.”

And there’s the isolation, the weight of making the decision and the dynamics of people arguing in court. “There’s a lack of preparation, and afterwards, no one acknowledges it,” she says. “But a lot of people worry they won’t be able to pay their bills, because the jury compensation scheme is far below many people’s usual earnings.” Jurors can claim up to £64.95 a day, plus £5.71 for expenses, and employers are not obliged to pay employees during this time.

Fawcett is now researching how courtrooms can be more sensitive to trauma.

“While there’s a movement towards being more trauma-informed in schools and the NHS, courts haven’t quite got there yet,” she says. But acknowledging the toll jury duty can take is a start.