Man becomes first deaf juror in English court

Matthew Johnston from London is believed to be the first profoundly deaf person to sit on a jury in a crown court in England and Wales. He served as foreman and hopes that others will be able to follow him.

Over a two-week period, the 54-year-old Technology Consultant from London served on three trials at Blackfriars crown court.

He is not the first D/deaf person to be summoned to serve on a British jury, however previously deaf people who require a sign language interpreter have been prevented from fulfilling the role. English and Welsh law prohibits anyone other than the 12 sworn jurors in the jury deliberation room, and a juror’s sign language interpreter would be considered a disqualifying ‘13th stranger.’

Johnston received a jury summons in January 2019 and initially had a request for a stenographer refused due to lack of finances. He then arranged a meeting with court officials to discuss how he could still fulfil his civic duty: he has some hearing due to his cochlear implant, and can lip-read and speak.

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 a sign language interpreter, and discussions with a judge, the court officials secured financing for a two-person team of stenographers to transcribe everything spoken in court.

“It’s all about inclusivity, isn’t it? It’s a big thing for me… [Deaf people] 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.”

Matthew Johnston sat on 3 separate trials for sexual assault, violent disorder and actual bodily harm. He read the subtitles on a tablet from the jury benches and relied on his lip-reading skills to participate in jury discussions – sitting at a round table in the jury deliberation room particularly helped him here. In two of the three cases, he served as foreman of the jury, which encouraged fellow jurors to speak clearly and direct their words to him.

Johnston had a few issues during his time as juror: his tablet ran out of battery at one point, and he couldn’t hear the announcements in the jury assembly area calling him to court, but nevertheless spoke positively about his experience.

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

Johnston hopes that closed captioning will shortly be introduced to all courts, and not only if a juror has hearing loss. He believes the option to read subtitles could also help hearing jurors whose first language isn’t English.

Blackfriars crown court has sought Matthew’s feedback to aim to improve its accessibility, but he is aware that some new transcription creation technology is potentially still too unrefined:

“If it changes the dynamic of a deliberation, I don’t know if it’s a good thing.”

Deaf people have served on juries in Ireland, Australia and the USA, but challenges to make exceptions to interpreters being a ‘13th stranger’ in English and Welsh courts have consistently been rejected.

There is no record of a profoundly deaf person serving as a juror in Britain and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have not pointed to any previous examples.

An MoJ spokesperson did not comment specifically on Johnston’s circumstances but they did say: “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.”