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The Real Jurats of Jersey

The Real Jurats of Jersey

Friday 22 January 2021

The Real Jurats of Jersey


Two of Jersey's Jurats have given Express a rare insight into their role - from the discussions behind the scenes to the cases that hit hardest, the 'digitised' judiciary of the future, and police interrupting their barbecues...

For most islanders, being woken up by a knock at the door from police officers at 02:00 would be a cause for alarm.

A cause for alarm, that is, unless you are Jurats Anthony Olsen and Rozanne Thomas, or any of their 10 other colleagues, for whom a call from the police to get permission for a warrant is just a part of the job description.

“They used to look and think what on earth are those officers doing there with this constant stream of police cars?” Jurat Olsen chuckles, recalling his neighbours’ reaction when he lived in St. Aubin, and officers used to pull up on their way to La Moye to get a warrant from him.

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Pictured: Lieutenant Bailiff Jurat Anthony Olsen will have been in the position of Jurat for ten years by the time he leaves.

As he and Jurat Thomas talk and laugh about their own and various colleagues’ experiences with interrupted barbecues, policemen on huge motorcycles rocking up outside their home, and making sure to stay off the wine when on duty week, what instantly becomes apparent is the striking normality of it all.

These are people who are usually defined by their surroundings rather than their character, the sombre formality of the Royal Court overshadowing the personalities of the people who preside over it.

But, sitting in this room, discussing frankly and openly their experiences in the role - these are the Real Jurats of Jersey...

A day in the life...

Of course, issuing warrants to police when the court is closed is only one tiny part of the role, which has encompassed a wide variety of areas in Jersey’s legal system since its inception in the 1300s.

The primary role of a Jurat is to sit in court and decide on the facts of cases, as well as determining sentencing and awarding damages in civil cases.

They also deal with matters like granting or refusing bail applications, they constitute Jersey’s Licensing Assembly, oversee elections as returning officers, amongst other civil and legal responsibilities.

Though courts are open to the public, when Jurats retire to discuss their decisions, it happens behind closed doors, leaving the great mystery of just what goes on when the Jurats go out of sight - do the formalities of the court go out the window? Are there dramatic clashes worthy of an American courtroom movie?

Jurat Thomas assures that none of those scenarios are the case, and that the formality of the court remains much in place. Describing the process, she illustrates the “relaxed”, “collegiate” and “free-flowing” debate that takes place.

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Pictured: Jurat Rozanne Thomas spoke of how "you've got to be curious" if you want to be a Jurat.

"The way it works is there’s a court hearing - a Judge and two Jurats if it’s an Inferior Number... and five Jurats if it’s Superior Number," she explains.

“When we retire, we sit around a table with the Judge at the head. The Judge is only actually there to tell us about the law – he doesn’t participate in the discussion.

“We go round the table, expressing, if it’s sentencing, what we think the sentencing should be and why, and very often we don’t agree with each other, and then there’s a discussion.

“Often we’re unanimous in the end, but not always,” she adds, saying that any disagreements are "very good-natured." The conclusions reached if unanimous will lead the Judge to the sentencing, or a majority verdict will be taken by the Judge if not.

Leaving it at the office

As part of these proceedings, Jurats are often faced with cases that involve difficult subject matter, ranging from drug abuse to child neglect, and involve making decisions that can steer the course of an individual's whole life.

When asked about the impact those cases have on them, it’s the ones involving the protection of children that have proven particularly noteworthy for the pair.

“I think what we all find terribly upsetting is there is a small group of people who repeatedly have children and are repeatedly unable to look after them adequately,” Jurat Thomas admitted.

“The children are removed from them, often at birth, and we all find that really sad, because you know in a year’s time this poor woman’s going to be back in court – and she loves her child, but she’s not able to look after it adequately.”

On how she copes with these situations and keeping a level head, she explains that “you have to leave everything in the office when you walk out. I think it happens gradually… there are people who you do think about afterwards, but you don’t let it upset you.”

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Pictured: Both Jurats said some of their most difficult cases have been ones involving separating children from parents when it is deemed unsafe for them.

Similarly, Jurat Olsen says that it was words of advice from a colleague that helped him in those situations.

“I used to find it terribly upsetting,” he explains. “Peter Morgan, who was a predecessor of mine as a Jurat, said, ‘It’s very simple: concentrate only on the interests of the child, forget everything else for the time being. The mother might be in tears, but think what the child might be going through. Think - do we need to intervene and save this child from further harm?’

"That made it much easier for me.”

Similarly, it has been a saddening revelation to Jurat Olsen to see the sheer number of people struggling to make ends meet in Jersey.

“There’s a massive underclass here that I didn’t know existed, he reflects.

"I knew there was something, but I would venture to suggest there are thousands of people living either in poverty or very near it.”

Moments of pride

However, alongside the more emotionally tasking aspects of the role, come moments of real pride and accomplishment too. One moment that stood out to Jurat Olsen involved pushing back one of their biggest cases, to ensure justice was given first to someone who needed it most.

“We had a big oil company; I think it was capitalised at 24bn dollars – it’s a number I can’t see, I had to take the noughts off to make sure I could understand it all!

“We had all sorts of expensive-looking people in court waiting for it to come up, and we couldn’t start because we were dealing with [this girl] who was aged 8, and what we were going to do with her.

“I was very proud of us that we held up the billion dollar oil company because of that [little girl].”

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Pictured: There have also been many accomplishments and satisfying moments for the two Jurats, who both called the work intellectually "stimulating."

Jurat Thomas also talks of the “lovely” moments of dealing with parents adopting children, and then subsequently seeing the parents and children a year later, where often the children will want to come up to where the judge and Jurats are sitting and explore the court room.

For every sentencing, meanwhile, there’s the possibility of a second chance. This is something the pair are keen to emphasise, expressing how they take great care in each case analysing the weight of the crime and the weight of the punishment.

Recalling cases where they had pushed for people to receive community service rather than a prison sentence due to their circumstances, they highlight how many have turned a new leaf as a result of the court showing understanding.

They look back to the moments where the Bailiff receives thanks years after a case from people who have made a success of their lives, or others thanking the court for being the first people to ever give them a chance in life.

However, these decisions also have their critics - those who feel the courts are going ‘too soft’ or giving out overly lenient sentences. When asked about these comments, Jurat Olsen has a blunt rejoinder.

“I think when people say, ‘You’ve let him off with community service,’ we’ll say, 'Well, actually, do you know what community service means? He’s lost every Saturday for the next two years – do you think that’s letting him off?' That’s one answer.

“The other answer is, 'Were you there, did you hear the evidence? Did you hear the speech and mitigation? Did you hear the background report?'”

He adds a challenge to those critics: "Let them come and do the job if they want to."

Recruiting the next generation

Indeed, on the subject of taking on the role, it begs the question - for such an all-encompassing title, what actually are the qualifications needed to take it on? But then again, this is precisely the point.

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Pictured: Three new Jurats are currently being sought to take up duties including sitting in on cases in the Royal Court.

Jurat Olsen, a retired legal advocate who has been involved in Jersey’s courts for 50 years, and Jurat Thomas, a former Citizens’ Advice Generalist Advisor for the island, originally from South Africa, come from wildly different backgrounds. The same goes for the other Jurats, who come from backgrounds ranging from medicine to teaching.

The message is clear: anyone can get involved, provided they have the right mindset for it. As Jurat Thomas states: “If you want to have a go, have a go – apply. Don’t be put off by thinking, 'I’m not a lawyer or I haven’t got a university degree.'”

With both of the Jurats retiring this year, alongside their colleague Jurat Charles Blampied, who will be retiring in January 2022, they are on the lookout for three new Jurats, and are hoping to widen the horizons of who can don the red robes.

The role has previously been put under scrutiny for a lack of diversity, but in recent years, efforts have been made to rectify this – in 2018, for the first time ever, there was an equal balance of men and women Jurats, following the appointment of Jurat Elizabeth Ann Dulake.

However, they both admit they are still needing to and actively looking to further diversify, seeking candidates from Jersey’s minority communities to create a more representative group of Jurats sitting on the bench, especially focusing on Portuguese and Polish communities who are currently not represented.

They explain that one of the main barriers when approaching these communities previously has been the rules around age for Jurats, which has limited the pool to people mainly around the age of 60 applying.

Although technically anyone of any age can be a Jurat, the current rule is that, unless there are extreme circumstances, you must stay in the role until you are 72 years old, a daunting commitment for someone who perhaps has retired young at 40, and is looking to contribute their services to the Judiciary.

This is something they are looking to change, and are hoping to pass a new law that will see someone be able to serve six years at any point, and then be given the option to either go onto a reserve list or retire entirely.

The court of the future?

It’s not just a revolution in diversity or age that the Jurats are looking to when thinking about the future of the court.

Covid-19 has seen some of the most radical changes to Jersey’s legal setup in its history, with video-link technology being implemented with a frequency like never before.

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Pictured: Jurat Thomas predicted that within the next five years, even following covid restrictions, courtroom processes will be significantly digitalised.

For both Jurats, they see this as more than a temporary precaution during covid, and instead as a major step forward in how cases are dealt with.

Jurat Olsen highlights the fact that, before covid, remanded prisoners from La Moye were often driven down to the court in the morning, for the sole purpose of appearing in court for a matter of minutes to be told when their case would be dealt with. However, now, it is simply a matter of appearing on camera.

“I think there’s going to be a process over the next five years where the courts are going to be digitised,” Jurat Thomas explained.

Elaborating on the wider effect of this, she continued: “So instead of having these huge bundles of files that we have, it will all be on computer, and we’ll sit as we do sometimes now with a couple of screens in front of each of us, and that will be a major revolution and improvement in efficiency.”

The Lieutenant Bailiff

On the subject of calls for change, the other key role within Jurats is that of Lieutenant Bailiff – a role whereby appointees can preside over certain court cases as Bailiff themselves.

It sparked controversy in 2018, when an Advocate argued that someone who is not legally qualified should not be allowed to preside over any cases.

When the question was put to him about this, Jurat Olsen, who sits as one of the current Lieutenant Bailiffs alongside Jurat Collette Crill, revealed that he sympathised with much of the argument, having had an extensive legal background of his own, including 21 years as Relief Magistrate, before he took on the role.

“I’d hate to do it as a layman,” he said, “and I think that if the Lieutenant Bailiffs are going to preside, it should be over very non-contentious things - passing contracts on a Friday afternoon, for example.

“Back in the day, it was not uncommon for a Lieutenant Bailiff presiding to say, 'I don’t understand this, we’re going to adjourn for a week.' I don’t think that’s acceptable anymore - I don’t think it was even acceptable then really.”

Despite these sympathies, he argued that the role should remain, suggesting that the cases the post-holder is appointed to oversee should be strictly minor, rather than having the title abolished entirely or those without a legal background being prevented from taking it.

Looking forward

Amongst all this talk of the future of the Jurat role, one key question remains – what exactly is it that you need to be a good Jurat?

“The very first thing is unimpeachable integrity; if you haven’t got that, you can’t do the job. So you’ve got to have that, a sense of fairness and total justice," Jurat Olsen said.

“You can’t come to this with any preconceptions and if you finally get them, you have to get rid of them as quickly as possible.”

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Pictured: "Curiosity" was one of the key words Jurat Thomas used when describing a common trait in Jurats.

Although there is no 'official' training for the role, other Jurats work as mentors to help newcomers, with a "varied" and “collegiate” team-based approach.

Each Jurat has a week-long duty shift every six weeks in principle, and equally time off is flexible too - though both Jurats note that due to the “intrusive” nature it can have on one’s social life, it's important that both Jurats and their immediate families understand the role.

Jurat Thomas emphasises too that people “should find out exactly what the role involves before they commit themselves”, encouraging potentials to go down to court and watch cases once covid rules allow it, to familiarise themselves with its processes.

And, of course, one topic that recurs throughout is the volume of literature one needs to go through as part of the job - as Jurat Olsen exclaims: "You’ve got to be intelligent, and, oh my god, you’ve to got to be able to read!"

Looking back

As their time in the red robes draws to a close, the pair reflect on their experience, which, when combined at the end of their tenures, totals sixteen years of service.

Of his near-decade in the role, Jurat Olsen said: “I think it’s fair to say you learn more after having started than you know before, and I’ve learnt an awful lot about Jersey and how it works.

“I mean, I thought I was a legal aid advocate for years… and I thought I knew how the island worked, but this has been a whole new revelation to me.”

Alongside being "stimulating and intellectually fulfilling", Jurat Thomas's six years in the role have also taught her about having confidence in one's own principles: "You do have to stick your neck out and say what you think and believe, even though you suspect you may be the odd one out."

Summing up those feelings, there’s a moment towards the end of the conversation where Jurat Olsen reflects to Jurat Thomas on the fact that he didn’t entirely know what he was getting into when he first signed up for the role.

However, recalling being asked by someone years later whether he would have taken it, had he known all it would entail, he gave a reply both Jurat Olsen and Jurat Thomas agreed on without hesitation.

“Of course.”


INTERESTED IN BEING A JURAT?

Islanders who are interested in becoming a Jurat, know someone else who might be, or would simply like to learn more about the role, can contact Lieutenant Bailiff Jurat Anthony Olsen at ajojersey@gmail.com, Jurat Rozanne Thomas at rozannethomas@me.com or the Bailiff's Judicial Secretary, Mrs Debbie Le Mottée on D.LeMottee@gov.je.

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