Vicarious Traumatisation as a Consequence of Jury Service



Abstract: Recent research on past-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has highlighted the adverse consequences of trauma, not just for victims, but also for those who interact with them: vicarious traumatisation. British citizens are required to sit on juries, where they may be exposed to gruesome exhibits and harrowing testimony: can such experiences also lead to vicarious traumatisation? Previous studies have demonstrated that some jurors do suffer both short- and longer-term trauma from jury service, both from hearing evidence and deliberation in the jury room. A first exploratory survey of British jurors confirms that a minority of jurors are so affected. The article calls for modifications to the current arbitrary allocation of jurors and for greater provision of information and guidance to minimise the negative consequences of an essential civic duty.

To serve as a member of a jury is considered a civic duty, not only in Britain, but also in the United States and most Commonwealth countries (Vidmar 2000; Kaplan and Martin 2006). In England and Wales, following the Criminal Justice Act 2003, almost all citizens aged between the ages of 18 and 69 years are now eligible for jury service (the exceptions being those with serious mental health problems or significant criminal records). On average, some 390,000 citizens serve on juries each year, selected at random from those on the electoral role (Jury Central Summoning Bureau 2007). Once at court, all prospective jurors are shown a film briefly outlining their duties and allocation of jurors to particular trials is arbitrary. Some jurors will be selected to serve on cases involving crimes against the person and will be exposed to testimony from visibly distressed victims, which will frequently be graphic and shocking. They will be expected to handle exhibits and examine explicit and gruesome photographs. When they retire to the jury room, they will have to rehearse such evidence and weigh up its significance for the guilt of the accused before reaching a verdict. They may find themselves in a minority on the jury, trying to change the minds of others while resisting pressures to conform to the majority view. All these processes have the potential to lead to significant distress, both in the short and longer term, for the jurors concerned. Yet, despite its time-honoured tradition, little research has been conducted to date on the impact of jury service on jurors' mental health and well-being. This article reports a first exploratory study on the stresses experienced by jurors in England and Wales and raises the question as to whether current procedures could have serious long-term consequences for at least a minority of vulnerable citizens.

Research on the Impact of Stress and Trauma

In recent years, considerable research has been directed toward understanding the consequences of traumatic experience for an individual's mental health (Ozer et al. 2003). Experiences yielding traumatic consequences include events with a direct threat to the person involved, such as sexual or physical assaults, and responses to disasters, both natural (the Boxing-Day Tsunami) and man-made (road traffic accidents; the King's Cross Fire). Most information, however, has been derived from studies of veterans of active military service; indeed, it was as a direct result of such research on US survivors of the Vietnam conflict that the condition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was formally recognised and defined in the psychiatric literature.

Symptoms shown by patients diagnosed with PTSD can include excessive arousal and irritability, behaviours to avoid reminders of traumatic material, emotional numbing, and impaired memory for the original events, which nonetheless intrude into consciousness as ‘flashbacks’, with all the vividness and intensity of the original experience (DSM-IV-TR 2004). A more recent development has been the recognition that traumatisation is not confined solely to the victims of overwhelming events: it can also affect those endeavouring to help them. Professionals such as the police, emergency services and medical personnel called to the scene, even the therapists who treat the victims and must empathise with the intensely distressing accounts offered by survivors, may all develop PTSD symptoms: so-called vicarious traumatisation (McCann and Pearlman 1990). The question arises as to whether jurors, too, can suffer such vicarious traumatisation through exposure to and empathy with victim accounts and gruesome evidence at trial. It can be argued that only in long and complex trials is their immersion likely to be prolonged, but the material with which they must grapple will often be shocking and vivid and may have relevance to their own experiences. Some support for this view comes from the limited previous studies which have explored juror stress.

Individual Juror Reactions: Jury Debriefing

Reports on the impact of stress on individual jurors have figured in many articles in the media (for example, Woolcock 2007; McAree 2004; Trafford and White 2003; Davies 2005) and at least one television programme. In Juror (BBC Television 1997), ordinary people involved in jury service in high-profile trials reflected on its impact on their lives. ‘Jenny’ reported that she had turned up at the court ‘a happy, confident level-headed person’ but after ten days of the trial, she was ‘too frightened to open her front door’. Another juror reported: ‘we all felt terribly vulnerable and exposed: stuck in a nightmare we could not get out of’. Other jurors felt that their experiences and reactions were not understood: ‘I don't think they appreciate what it costs an ordinary person to do their civic duty’. The prohibitions on speaking to others embodied in the Law of Contempt had been impressed upon them and this served to increase their isolation: ‘We were given clear instructions not to talk to anyone. I wanted desperately to talk to anybody, but I couldn't, not even my husband’.

These anecdotal reports are supported by more systematic accounts collected by psychologists and psychiatrists who have been called in to discuss with jurors their experiences and feelings after trials in which stress has been an issue. Such ‘juror debriefing’ is modelled on the controversial ‘critical incident stress debriefing’ sometimes offered to emergency service personnel after major incidents. Such debriefing for jurors is widely employed in the US, but rarely in the UK, although the jury in the Rosemary West serial murder case were offered counselling at the end of the trial (Lloyd-Bostock and Thomas 1999).

Feldmann and Bell (1993) were recruited to debrief the jury following the sensational trial of serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Among symptoms reported by all jurors were sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts, restlessness and agitation. Jurors attributed these symptoms to the graphic evidence to which they had been exposed, their lack of knowledge of legal procedure, and the insensitive and patronising way in which they were treated by the officers of the court and expert witnesses. Jurors reported that their difficulties were not exclusive to the evidence and exhibits, but also extended to the decision-making process (see also Feldmann and Bell 1991; Bell and Feldmann 1992). Kaplan and Winget (1992) interviewed 40 jurors who had deliberated in four high-profile trials including two murder cases. No fewer than 27 jurors reported stress-related symptoms including depression, sexual problems, headaches, eating disorders and somatic complaints: gastro-intestinal distress being the most frequently cited (ten jurors). Some seven jurors became physically ill during the course of the proceedings and at least one fulfilled DSM-IV criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD.

Clearly, these were high-profile trials, frequently featuring crimes involving extreme violence, where there was sufficient official concern over their impact on individual jurors to warrant professional intervention. While the long-term benefits of juror debriefing remain a matter of controversy (for example, Figley 1995), these studies provide ample evidence that jurors in these trials suffered significant amounts of stress and on occasion, longer-term trauma. However, it can be argued that such cases provide a poor guide as to the likely experiences of the average juror in a typical trial. For a more representative picture, it is necessary to look at surveys conducted on jurors in a wider range of cases, involving both person-centred and property offences.

Systematic Surveys of Perceived Levels of Juror Stress

Most of the published survey studies have been conducted with American jurors. In a pioneering study, Shuman, Hamilton and Daley (1994) secured questionnaires from 152 individuals who had served on juries in the Dallas area. Respondents had served on what were defined as traumatic (for example, murder; kidnapping; aggravated sexual assault) and non-traumatic trials (for example, burglary; credit card fraud; drug possession). They provided self-ratings of stress as a consequence of jury service, in addition to background information relating to the trial and themselves, including any pre-existing medical conditions to control for levels of pre-trial stress. Participants who had sat on trials classified as traumatic reported nearly three times as many PTSD-related symptoms as those in non-traumatic trials and overall, women reported significantly more symptoms than did men, but the symptoms persisted longer amongst the men. Deliberation emerged as a particular source of stress for all jurors with the effects being more persistent than for other stressors, such as shocking visual material. A later study by Bornstein et al. (2005) underlined the significance of deliberation as a source of stress, both at trial and post-trial as well as examining the impact of professional post-trial debriefing. Whilst the interventions were well received by jurors at the time, they had no noticeable impact on the severity of symptoms at a one-month follow-up, consistent with other evidence noting only transitory effects of debriefing (Arendt and Elklit 2001).

In the most comprehensive study of stress in American jurors, conducted by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) (1998), judicial opinion was surveyed as well as the views of 401 jurors involved in diverse cases across six jurisdictions. Jurors completed three questionnaires. The Jury Duty Survey was modelled on the Impact of Events Scale routinely used in PTSD research (Horowitz, Wilner and Alvarez 1979) and required jurors to give a yes/no response to a series of statements covering jury service (for example, ‘I look back on my jury with fondness’). The Jury Environment Scale covered various aspects of jury duty, including interactions with judges, court officials and fellow jurors. The Jury Duty Stress Scale required jurors to rate some 50 potential sources of stress at trial (for example, receiving summons; grisly evidence; media coverage) on a five-point scale; judges, too, completed this scale. In addition, judges were asked to recall their most recent trial where juror stress was an issue, to describe how they detected it and what, if anything, they did to minimise the problem.

The NCSC found that jurors involved in all types of trial reported significant amounts of stress. The highest numbers of respondents reported stress in cases concerning offences against the person, with murder trials involving a decision on the death penalty producing the highest of all (86%). Reported stress increased with length of trial, reaching 92% for cases which lasted for over eleven days. A common response of those under stress was to speak to others regarding their experiences, a reaction also noted in a smaller-scale study of US jurors by Kelley (1994). In general, jurors attributed higher levels of stress to their fellow jurors than they did to themselves. Again, jury discussions and reaching a verdict were rated the most distressing aspects of the trial, more so than harrowing aspects of the evidence.

This picture of widespread concern among jurors over their experiences may be contrasted with the perceptions of the judges, some 30% of whom could not recall a single trial in the preceding year where stress had been an issue. Over 90% of judges believed that fewer than 10% of jurors suffered as a consequence of jury service, but did acknowledge that it was their duty to minimise distress where it occurred. However, they failed to identify the widespread concern among jurors over the deliberative process and instead, singled out type of trial (child abuse; murder) as the principal cause.

It would be unwise to generalise these US findings to juries as a whole. American juries differ from those in the UK and Commonwealth countries on a wide variety of dimensions: for instance, means by which jurors are selected (the availability of peremptory challenge through the Voir Dire procedure); the rules on unanimity and their particular role in determining the death penalty in those states where capital punishment persists (Kaplan and Martin 2006). Once a trial is completed, American jurors in many states are not bound by the rules of confidentiality which constrain what questions can be asked by researchers regarding their experiences.

Two studies on juror stress which have been conducted in Canada and New Zealand underscore the differences as well as the similarities in juror concerns in different judiciaries. An unpublished dissertation by Chopra (2004) involved some 80 jurors who were solicited through newspaper advertisement in Vancouver and who completed the Jury Duties Stress Scale and an adapted version of the Impact of Events Scale. Patterns of stress in response to different aspects of the proceedings paralleled the NCSC study: deliberative processes generally received high ratings. Indeed, seven of the top ten concerns focused on aspects of group decision making. Levels of stress reported were generally much higher in the Canadian than in the US study and 11.3% of jurors reported a cluster of symptoms consistent with PTSD. Chopra attributes the higher reported stress levels to the lack of opportunity for Canadian jurors to discuss their experiences. However, the method of soliciting the sample may have attracted a disproportionate number of jurors who had negative experiences to disclose.

A government-sponsored study of New Zealand jurors (Young, Cameron and Tinsley 1999) included a number of questions designed to probe negative as well as positive aspects of jury service. While 82% of the sample had found the experience worthwhile, some 23% reported feeling tired and exhausted, which they attributed to the need to concentrate on the evidence during the day and loss of sleep at night. As in the US studies, some respondents reported symptoms of stress both during and after the trial: deliberation again figured as a difficulty, along with concern over intimidation from the accused and their associates, and links between their own personal experiences and aspects of the trial evidence. Counselling for jurors is available in New Zealand, but was rarely taken up.

Surprisingly then, no robust study has been undertaken to examine stress experienced by jurors in England, perhaps because of the prohibitions on questioning jurors embodied in Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. A major study of the English jury undertaken for the Home Office (Matthews, Hancock and Briggs 2004) was careful to avoid any questions which might be construed as violating the provisions of the Act, but did include a question on juror stress. Matthews, Hancock and Briggs reported that 20% of women and 16% of men had suffered significant stress, with concerns highest among jurors in their 20s and lowest in those aged over 60 years. As in the North American studies, decision-making processes emerged as the greatest source of concern. The authors acknowledged stress as a significant issue, recommending that concerned jurors should have routine access to counselling services.

The current exploratory study examined the levels of stress among jurors serving in the English legal system. It used a novel technique for recruiting a sample of jurors – a web-based questionnaire – but like earlier research it attempted to establish the extent of distress, trauma symptoms and perceived sources of strain reported, in this study, by a representative sample of English jurors. Using and tailoring a range of measures which have been developed and validated in earlier studies, it aimed to compare and contrast the experiences of English jurors with those from other jurisdictions with rather different rules and conventions regarding the selection, duties and conduct of jurors.

The Leicester Study

The web-based questionnaire was compiled with each respondent requested to complete it in its totality. It covered the following:

  • (i)Personal information, including age, gender, ethnicity, educational level and employment status.
  • (ii)Information about the trial for which they had served as a juror, including the length of trial, time since participating and the nature of the charges against the defendant.
  • (iii)A measure of Trait Anxiety derived from the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (Spielberger, Gorsuch and Lushene 1970) consisting of a series of statements, such as: ‘I am comfortable; tense; relaxed’, for each of which participants were required to rate themselves, using a four-point Likert scale.
  • (iv)A Prior Trauma questionnaire which invited participants to volunteer any personal history of direct experience of a range of traumatic events (for example: sexual assault/abuse; a major fire).
  • (v)A Trauma Symptoms Check List (Briere and Runtz 1989) examining whether the juror had experienced any of a range of somatic symptoms (such as headaches, insomnia or weight loss) during and subsequent to the trial.
  • (vi)The Jury Duty Stress Scale (National Center for State Courts 1998) adapted for use in England. This asked jurors to rate 44 different facets of jury service (for example, disturbing grisly evidence; jury deliberation and discussion) on a five-point Likert scale from ‘not at all stressful’ to ‘extremely stressful’.
  • (vii)A measure of post-traumatic stress disorder derived from the Mini International Psychiatric Interview (Sheehan et al. 1998). Respondents were requested to consider their jury service and to respond to 15 questions, including: ‘Have you noticed that your feelings are numbed?’ and ‘Have you had trouble recalling some important part of what happened?’ A score of nine positive responses or more predicts the presence of PTSD.
  • (viii)A Jury Deliberation Questionnaire for which jurors were invited to comment on aspects of the jury process including the impact of being part of a long-term group and the role of foreman, where appropriate.

A pilot study revealed that the on-line questionnaire took typically between 30 and 45 minutes to complete. The questionnaire was also scrutinised by two senior legal academics with a working knowledge of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, to ensure that none of the content infringed the terms of the Act. All questionnaires were submitted on an anonymous basis and care was taken not to elicit information which might have led to the identification of either the juror or the trial on which they sat. Responses for all the clinical measures were assessed for internal consistency using Cronbach's alpha: coefficients ranging from 0.77 to 0.93, indicating robust reliability.

In order to generate interest in completion of the on-line questionnaire, a press release was produced, raising the general issue of whether jury service could be a significant source of stress and emphasising the lack of such studies in the UK. This generated considerable publicity in both the local and national media in which the web-address of the questionnaire featured prominently. In the event, some 64 jurors based in England and Wales fully completed the questionnaire during the four-month period in which it was available on the web.

Characteristics of the On-line Sample

The respondents consisted of 26 males and 38 females, all resident in the UK and all with jury experience. They ranged in age from 18 to 67 years with a mean age of 36.09 years (SD=12.45 years) and 89% described themselves as of white British nationality. A high proportion (61%) worked in some form of public service and only 10% were retired or unemployed; just over half (56%) were married or cohabiting.

The great majority of participants (95%) had served on criminal trials, while the remainder sat on civil matters, and their jury experience dated from one to 25 months previously. Some 55% had been involved in trials lasting three days or less, but 22% sat on cases which lasted six or more days. They reported that 59% of the trials involved crimes against the person, of which allegations of rape, theft and grievous bodily harm were the most frequent; the remainder sat on trials involving property crimes, including arson, vandalism and burglary. In all, 54% of trials ended with a guilty verdict.

Reported Stress and Jury Service

On the adapted version of the Impact of Events Scale, participants scored an average of 14.94 (SD=16.41) which fell below clinical significance for the sample as a whole. However, 23% (n=15) showed scores indicative of moderate to severe stress and 13% (n=8), all female, scored above the cut-off point for severe clinical stress. Some 13 respondents acted as foremen: this role was generally associated with elevated stress levels, with four respondents reporting this as ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extremely’ stressful.

Female jurors experienced higher levels of stress than males, t (62)=2.53, p<0.01, and females who sat on a case relevant to a past trauma in their own lives reported particularly elevated levels, t (62)=2.37, p<0.02. Trials involving crimes against the person produced higher levels of stress than property crime, t (62)=2.56, p<0.01. The effects of levels of trait anxiety, t (62)=1.67, p<0.10, and prior juror experience, t (62)=1.70, p<0.10, approached significance in predicting an elevation and lowering respectively of stress levels, but age, education and professional background were not significant predictors. There was also a trend for jurors involved in longer trials to report higher levels of stress, but the difference did not reach significance due to inter-participant variability, F (2,61)=1.80, ns.

Responses from the Trauma Symptoms Check List indicated that jurors experienced a range of symptoms of distress during and after the trial, of which restless sleep (22% during; 8% after); sadness (17% during; 6% after); feeling isolated (14% during; 3% after); headaches (13% during; 3% after); waking at night (11% during; 5% after); flashbacks (11% during; 5% after) and feeling tense all the time (11% during; 5% after) were the most common.

As to the particular sources of stress, the findings from the Jury Duty Stress Scale indicated that among the ten most frequently reported sources of stress (see Table 1), those relating to jury decision making were the most prominent, though listening to disturbing evidence and being sequestered for the entire trial were also significant sources of concern. There were also significant gender differences on some items: female jurors were more likely than males to highlight being distressed by dissension or differences among jurors, t (58)=2.25, p<0.03; answering questions in front of other people t (61)=2.78, p<0.01, or disturbing or grisly evidence t (33)=2.69, p<0.01.

Table 1. 
The Top Ten Most Reported Sources of Stress in the Leicester On-line Survey
Source of stressMSDn
  1. (Notes: M=mean; SD=standard deviation of the ratings. All ratings based on a five-point scale where 1=‘not at all stressful’ and 5=‘extremely stressful’. Numbers (n) indicate the number of respondents mentioning a given source, based on a maximum possible total of 64.)

Deciding on a verdict3.131.2762
Fear of making a mistake3.131.3663
Reaching a majority not unanimous verdict3.041.4328
Jury discussion and deliberation2.951.1261
Being in a minority position in debate2.871.4039
Dissensions/differences among jurors2.871.3160
Sentencing a criminal defendant2.671.4145
Answering questions in front of other people2.461.1363
Disturbing/grisly evidence2.461.3435
Sequestration during the trial period2.431.5614

As regards longer-term effects associated with PTSD, responses to the Mini International Psychiatric Interview indicated that 23% (seven male and eight female) of jurors reported having experienced, witnessed or had to deal with traumatic events in the course of their trial and 5% (three persons) reported that they had responded with intense fear, helplessness or horror. Principal symptoms reported were difficulty with sleeping (17%, n=11) and concentration (19%, n=12) and overall, one juror out of the total sample fulfilled the criteria for current PTSD with a score of 9.


These results from this first exploratory survey from the UK confirm that jury service can be a significant source of anxiety and for a vulnerable minority, can engender moderate to severe clinical levels of stress and in the longer term, lead to symptoms associated with PTSD. Trials involving crimes against the person are more likely to induce a stressful reaction than those involving property crimes. Women as a group appear to be more vulnerable than men, especially when the trial touches upon a past traumatic event that has been personally experienced. As regard sources of stress, those most widely shared were linked to the deliberative and decision-making phases of the trial. Dealing with repellent and horrific evidence was also highlighted as a significant area of concern, particularly so for women, who also attached greater stress to dealing with dissension and answering questions in the jury room.

Inevitably, caution needs to be exercised in drawing sweeping conclusions from a relatively small and self-selected sample of respondents, but many of the findings echo those of earlier studies conducted in other judiciaries. Studies in North America also found a greater impact of crimes against the person as opposed to property crime (National Center for State Courts 1998; Shuman, Hamilton and Daley 1994) and pointed to the deliberative phase as the most common source of stress in most trials (Bornstein et al. 2005; Chopra 2004). As regards the levels of stress within the jury population, the levels reported in the Leicester study were somewhat lower than those reported in North American studies, though still substantial for a minority of participants. Caution is required in extrapolating the figures obtained in the Leicester study to British jurors as a whole, given the size and self-selected nature of the sample; nonetheless, they confirm that jury service is a potent source of stress and for a small minority of jurors, an overwhelming one.

There is nothing in the current findings to suggest that jurors drawn from the general population should not, in principle, continue to play a valuable and essential role in Crown Court trials. Some moderate level of stress is inherent in the legal process, whether as defendant, witness or juror. Much has been done in recent years to provide additional support for witnesses, through the Witness Support organisation and improved facilities (Criminal Justice System 2008). There is much that could be done to improve support for jurors: more extensive preparation and briefing and such simple courtesies as clear directions and an assured parking space, something which is routine in many American judiciaries (for example, Floyd County 2008), but not elsewhere. Currently, those jurors who are troubled by their experiences have little external support: the law, for good legal reasons, precludes jurors from discussing their thoughts and feelings with others, even their loved ones, both during and after a trial. As Chopra (1994) and others have emphasised, this can only increase the sense of isolation experienced by the juror outside the jury room: one of the ten most often cited stressors for the Leicester sample. Undue levels of distress among jurors can also impair the effectiveness of decision making and thus undermine the whole rationale of the citizen juror (Flin et al. 1997). The availability at Crown Court Centres of a supporter for jurors, similar to the supporters now available for vulnerable witnesses, could play a useful role in being able to discuss the experiences with troubled jurors under the privileges engendered by a shared and binding legal oath.

The current study has replicated earlier findings from other judiciaries in finding that for a small minority of citizens, jury service may be a significant danger to their mental health. In particular, this study has highlighted the greatly increased levels of stress experienced by women who sit on trials where the events are relevant to their personal history. Currently, persons are allocated by lot to juries; a simple questionnaire focusing on past experiences would be sufficient to eliminate vulnerable jurors from potentially traumatic trials, to the benefit of the criminal justice system and the mental health of the individuals concerned. Finally, the current results replicate others in pointing to discussions and deliberations in the jury room as the single greatest source of stress for most jurors. There may be ways in which that stress can be mitigated without interfering with the independence and confidentiality of such deliberations, through the wider use of guidelines or decision heuristics as occurs in some Australian courts (Goodman-Delahunty and Tait 2006). Sadly, it is not possible to even begin to answer this question as long as social scientists in the UK are legally precluded from either talking to jurors about their experiences or observing juries at work.