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Man Sets Legal Landmark As First Deaf Juror In English Court

August 29, 2019

A 54-year-old technology consultant from London is believed to have established a legal landmark this month by becoming the first profoundly deaf person to sit on a jury in a crown court in England and Wales.

Matthew Johnston served on three trials during a two-week period at Blackfriars crown court, concluding last Thursday. He read subtitles from courtroom stenographers and relied on his lip-reading skills to participate in jury deliberations. Johnston has a small amount of hearing as a result of his cochlear implant, and is able to speak.

“It’s all about inclusivity, isn’t it,” Johnston said. “It’s a big thing for me … We don’t want to turn our backs to society, we want to be part of society. We want to feel included. I feel great that I can be one of a jury.”

Deaf people have previously been denied the opportunity to serve on juries in the UK as many rely on sign language interpreters. English and Welsh law prohibits the presence in the jury deliberation room of anybody except the 12 sworn jurors, and an interpreter would be considered a disqualifying “13th stranger”.

After receiving a jury summons in January, and initially having a request for a stenographer refused for lack of finances, Johnston arranged a meeting with court officials to discuss how he could still fulfil his civic duty. Johnston assured them he did not require a sign language interpreter, and also noted that the round table in the jury deliberation room would allow him to lip-read his fellow jurors.

Johnston said deaf people are usually automatically precluded from selection, but insisted that was a mistake as effective methods of communication exist for many. He said: “They wanted to see me, how deaf I was, how well I could lip-read, and when they met me there was no problem.”

After being convinced of Johnston’s ability to serve without hindrance, and discussions with a judge, the officials secured financing for a two-person team of stenographers to transcribe everything spoken in court, which Johnston read on a tablet device from the jury benches.

He sat on separate trials for sexual assault, violent disorder and actual bodily harm. In two of the three cases, Johnston served as foreman of the jury – a measure that encouraged his fellow jurors to speak clearly and direct their words at him during deliberations. Johnston said he had requested that colleagues raise their hand before talking and refrain from speaking over one another, to ensure he could follow everything being said.

“I think it made the deliberations clearer, more structured,” Johnston said. “I was really pleased when somebody said: ‘Matthew, you’re going to be the foreman.’ I actually felt a little bit emotional when somebody said that. They had confidence in me.”

Deaf people have served on juries in Ireland, Australia and the US, but challenges to existing laws to permit the same in England and Wales have consistently failed. In 1999, the then chief executive of the British Deaf Association (BDA), Jeff McWhinney, lost a court battle to allow a sign language interpreter to accompany him. A judge ruled that a 13th person in jury deliberations would amount to an “incurable irregularity”.

There is no record of a profoundly deaf person having served on a British jury and the Ministry of Justice did not point to any previous examples when asked.

Johnston is not the first deaf person to seek to set a new precedent recently, however. In January, Pauline Latchem, from north London, was left “annoyed and irritated” when her request for a sign language interpreter to help her attend jury service at Wood Green crown court was rejected, with the jury summons board stating “jurors are not allowed to have interpreters” and that it “may well impact on my ability to carry out my jury service”. Advertisement

A deaf woman from Essex recently said she had appealed against her disqualification to a judge, who ruled that she should be allowed to appear on a jury and provided with an interpreter in court and a speech-to-text converter in the jury room. She has yet to receive a court date.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman did not comment specifically on Johnston’s circumstances but said: “Every effort is made to make sure people with hearing difficulties can serve on juries, and we are harnessing technology like hearing loops and computer-aided transcription services to improve accessibility even further.”

The MoJ says it is examining developments in potential new technology, including voice recognition software or simultaneous transcripts, that could provide technical assistance to those who are profoundly deaf.

Anthony Jarvis, who was on the same jury panel at Blackfriars as Johnston, said: “The processes in court seemed like they were in no way negatively impacted by having a deaf juror and that the court handled it very well. The trial carried on as if having a deaf juror was standard procedure. It didn’t feel like this was the first time.”

Johnston himself said that apart from a couple of small teething issues – his tablet ran out of battery charge at one point, and he also could not hear the announcements in the jury assembly area calling him to court – his time was entirely fulfilling.

“It worked. It can be done,” he said. “It means that more people with hearing impairments can go on a jury. You’ve got a bigger pool to select.”

His ultimate aim is that closed captioning is introduced to courts as a matter of course, and not only if someone on the jury self-reports as deaf. Eleven million people are hard of hearing in the UK, and Johnston said the option of reading subtitles could also help people for whom English is not their first language.

He said that Blackfriars crown court had already sought his feedback with a view to increasing its accessibility, but he also recognised that some new technology aimed at producing automated and near-instant transcriptions from spoken word was potentially still too unrefined. “If it changes the dynamic of a deliberation, I don’t know if it’s a good thing,” he said.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 29, 2019 1:32 am

    More silly nonsense – like the deaf nurse.

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