Famous people do jury service too, reveals Tony Barrell. Who knew?
In 2014 I arranged to interview Sheila E., the famous American drummer and singer, and her publicist gave me a date for the phone interview. Soon afterwards, the publicist told me it would have to be postponed, because Sheila had been called to do jury service.
That was a surprise. Until that point, I’d had no idea that famous people did jury service like the rest of us. Imagine standing in the dock and looking over at the jurors’ benches to see Mick Jagger, Gillian Anderson or the complete 1973 lineup of Genesis sitting there, pondering your case and getting ready to determine your future. Aren’t court appearances nerve-jangling enough without celebrities entering the picture?
Madonna was called for jury service in New York, but when they decided they already had enough people for the jury, she was allowed to leave
A couple of weeks later, there were reports that Madonna had been called for jury service in New York. She was allowed to wait in a separate room from other prospective jurors, so as “not to create a distraction”, and after less than two hours, when the authorities decided they already had enough people for the jury, she was allowed to leave. Apparently, a similar thing happened to Madge in 2008, this time in Los Angeles.
As I investigated further, I discovered more evidence of American celebrities doing their civic duty. Tom Hanks did a spot of jury service recently, too, but it ended when a foolish member of the prosecution team broke the rules by approaching the movie star during a lunch break to say hello – you mustn’t communicate with the jury like that.
Then I started wondering: does this not happen to British celebs as well? Why do we never hear about court cases in which the jury includes people like Bryan Ferry, Lily Allen or Sir Ian McKellen? Is there some dodgy exemption clause written into the law of the land, whereby you’re entitled to refuse the call if your face is familiar to millions of people? How, exactly, would that clause be worded? Perhaps like this: “You may be entitled to refrain from performing as a member of the King’s Jury if you are deemed to have sufficiently significant superstar status to cause an unfortunate and obstructive ruckus in His Majesty’s Court of Law, or to interfere otherwise with the prosecution of the case in question.”
I can confirm that, in England and Wales, people are eligible for jury service irrespective of their social position or fame
So I emailed a person who should know – the Jury Summoning Manager of the Jury Central Summoning Bureau (I kid you not), based in London. The venerable JSM, a chap named Vernon Merritt, replied very promptly to my question. “Thank you for your enquiry,” he wrote. “I can confirm that, in England and Wales, people are eligible for jury service irrespective of their social position or fame.”
So there you have it: British celebs do get the call, and I can only conclude that their court appearances are much more hush-hush than in the USA. But I hadn’t even thought about “social position” – whether you can get off jury duty if you’re not exactly a famous face, but you have a certain amount of wealth and status. One story I found on the internet confirms that even the poshest of the posh aren’t exempt. It seems a diamond heiress was “heartbroken” when she was summoned to be a juror and had to miss Royal Ascot, an essential part of her social calendar. I imagine she turned up in an enormous hat. ♦
© 2014 Tony Barrell
Tony Barrell has been published by HarperCollins, Omnibus Press, ACC Art Books, Iconic Images and Godknowswhoelse.