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Stepping Sideways from Everyday Life | Print |  Email
Sunday, 14 November 2004
Mary Moylan spent the last week engaged in her civic responsibility: jury duty. But what's with all the laughter, and the knitting, and the jigsaw puzzles?

by Mary Moylan (

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As I was heading out to Newfoundland this past summer, I was called to jury service for a week at the end of June. It was a first for me and I truly felt endorsed as a citizen of Canada but I had to tell them I was not available and confirm this by showing a copy of my travel arrangements. I was then allowed to choose an alternative week. I selected this week as Remembrance Day falls on November 11th and I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that the courts would be closed on that day thus giving me one day less to serve.

Somehow I would survive this heavy and onerous week with a bunch of strangers. I would bring work and books and writing with me.

So this past Monday I show up at the courthouse in downtown Toronto along with around two hundred and fifty other souls. After our identities are confirmed and we pass through airport type security, we are escorted to the general jury room to wait for selection calls to one of the many courtrooms in the building.

The room is large, with floor to ceiling windows looking out on the street. A half-door opens to the lobby café so one can order coffee, tea and light snacks. We watch a thirty-minute film outlining the correct protocol to follow in the event we are called for selection. The video also has interviews with past jurors who have found the overall experience enlightening and a powerful affirmation of judicial democracy at work. We look at each other with barely concealed disbelief on hearing this. We are a subdued - almost glum - bunch, encompassing all ages, colours, genders and walks of life.

I select a table to sit at. There are nine or ten such tables scattered throughout the room, along with theatre-style seating in the centre and carousels with laptop connections at the sidewalls.

Along with most of my peers, I have brought work to do, and sometimes the sounds of multiple mobile telephones going off drown out the sporadic announcements made by the court officer at the front of the room. My table is now full. Eight of us sit as if we are alone and work away silently. Through the course of the morning, the work is surreptitiously shoved aside and novels and magazines emerge. Slowly these too are gradually abandoned until all eight of us are engaged in light chat and laughter. The courtroom is in the heart of an Asian district so it is decided some of us are going to go out and sample some dim sum at lunch.

In the afternoon our panel (about eighty of us) are called to a court room for selection at an assault trial and one at our table is chosen, two of us are rejected (under no other criteria, it appears, rather than age or profession) and the jury is fully selected before the rest of our table have a chance at going to the front of the court room for scrutiny. We all troop back, some of us openly envious of the tablemate who gets to serve. Over afternoon chat, I discover another knitter and we resolve to bring our knitting the following day.

Tuesday dawns in the Jury Room and we all troop in. There is a remarkable change in the atmosphere. For one, to much laughter, most of us discover we are quite territorial, as we all go back to the seats of yesterday and along with personalizing our areas we now share our newspapers, chat about the headlines and observe the bigger world around the room. People have turned from their laptop computers and are now engaging in conversation with others. Card games have been started but most interesting of all, two tables over from us, the eight who were all maniacally going at files, laptops, cellphones and papers on the previous day are now painstakingly putting together a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle accompanied by much joking while the table next to us has a bridge game going. Mobile phones are switched off or ignored. There is much laughter and crossover conversations in the room.

One of us has taken the trouble of getting the courts roster to see what cases are up and speculate on the possibility of any of us in the room getting involved in a long trial. We are all walking around the room now as if it were home, stopping to chat and comparing notes. General consensus is of gratitude at being part of so important a civic process. And some of us even reflect that if it were our turn, God forbid, to be up on some charge, we would hope to have jurors just like us weighing and measuring the evidence.

Some of us exchange business cards. I tell one guy who is married to a Galway woman about the Irish Emigrant and send him the link. People born in other countries, like me, share experiences of emigration. There is a total shift in energy from the grumbling and isolation of Monday and two days have not yet passed.

Today, Wednesday, our keepers, (as we have affectionately come to call the court officers in charge of us!) made the announcement that we were being dismissed early. We all cheered, just like school kids. But then, the oddest thing, we didn't race from the room. The workaholics lingered at the jigsaw table, I reluctantly started to put away my knitting, and when I was asked if in spite of leaving so early I would still like to do lunch, I leaped at the chance.

We are "off" tomorrow. But, you know, I can hardly wait for Friday. I'm sure we'll all have loads to share about our day away from the Jury Room. I also think that by the end of the week, some new friendships will be forged and an unforgettable holiday from every day life will linger long in our minds. Who thought civic duty could be so much fun?

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