Sign language interpreters could be allowed to join deaf jurors in the deliberating room, under new laws proposed by the government. This would overturn the rule which prohibits a ‘13th person’ from witnessing a jury’s deliberation.

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Current laws on deaf jurors

Deaf jurors are allowed to serve on juries; there is no outright ban on deaf people acting as jurors. However, profoundly deaf people rarely do. This is because although a British sign language interpreter is permitted in the courtroom, an interpreter cannot accompany members of the 12-person jury in the deliberation room.

Currently, legalisation prevents a 13th person from entering the deliberation room, as there are fears that it could influence the jury’s decision. This means that any deaf jurors must rely on lipreading in order to participate effectively. Not all deaf people are confident lip-readers, meaning many have been found ineligible to serve.

The rules have been challenged in the past, but always unsuccessfully. In 1999, for example, the then Chief Executive of the British Deaf Association asked the court to allow an interpreter to accompany him in the deliberating room. The court refused, saying it would amount to an “incurable irregularity”.

Proposed legal changes

Now the government wants to change the rules to open the justice system to everyone. The proposal was recently set out in the Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill, along with a range of other measures designed to cut crime and make communities safer. The Bill intends to remove barriers for deaf jurors by permitting interpreters into the deliberation room.

The Bill is making its way through Parliament. It remains to be seen whether the proposals will be passed into law, and if so, to what extent. If this proposal does gain Parliament’s approval, it could affect around 80,000 deaf people, who would now be eligible to carry out jury duty. Protections would also be put in place to protect the justice system.

For instance, interpreters will have to sign a confidentiality agreement setting, remain impartial and keep jury room discussions a secret. It will be an offence for an interpreter to intentionally interfere in or influence jury deliberations, with a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment. Interpreters would also be subject to the same restrictions as jurors, such as surrendering electronic devices, not researching a case or sharing research with jurors.

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