Have you ever asked to be excused from jury service? Well you’re not alone! For centuries potential jurors have sought to escape their civic duty on grounds of health, work or simple inconvenience. Here are some such requests which survive within the High Court of Justiciary held by the National Records of Scotland.
By far the most common reason for non-attendance was ill-health. Lumbago [lower back pain] was a common affliction, as was gout – in 1790 a solicitor from Dumfries had been “for many months past very distressed with gouty and bilious complaints which have confined him to his house for several weeks.”
The Sheriff Subsitute of Renfrewshire, reported in September 1790 that he had been “seized with cholera morbus” a historic term for gastroenteritis, and was confined to bed.
A similar reason was given to the High Court in Edinburgh in 1796, with the juror at pains to stress his discomfort: “it is very doubtful my being able to sit on a jury without the risk of interrupting the court.”
Another potential juror was unable to attend the circuit court in Aberdeen in May 1820 as he had been “for some time past affected with violent spasms of the bladder so as to render him unfit to attend his duty as a juryman or to be under restraint for any length of time.”
Some rather alarming symptoms were given as reasons for not attending: One juror had “lain ill of a fever for these ten days past attended with inflammation on the lungs and profuse haemorrhage at the nose” while another was suffering from “a return of an attack of indisposition with spitting of blood.”
The doctor of a merchant in Newton Stewart, declared that he was “presently affected with a painful eruption on his face and neck attended with considerable swelling of the glands of the neck and throat.”
An elderly gentleman wrote to the court explaining he was unable to attend due to the loss of his sight – an affliction which had seen him excused 20 years previously: “if they fine a man for wanting his sight and hearing and not doing without these blessings, what others can do with them – why! I must submit to this judgement and will surely rather pay a hundred merks than break my bones.”
It wasn’t just jurors who sought to be excused. Spare a thought for the witness from Kirkwall, cited to attend the trial of Thomas Urquhart in 1797, who was “incapable of going to Edinburgh either by sea or land without endangering his life – as he has for these three months past laboured under pulmonic and hemorrhoidal complaints to such a degree as to have occasioned great debility.”
Some of the jury exemptions reveal contemporary medical treatments. A gentleman from Tannadice was unable to attend the spring circuit at Perth as he had “for several months past laboured under a severe bilious complaint and affection of the liver for which he has just undergone the effects of a mercurial course.”
Another, meanwhile, was undergoing an altogether more enjoyable treatment having “gone to the North Country for the benefit of sea bathing.”
A customs officer in Anstruther wrote to excuse himself from the circuit court of 1820 due to work commitments: “I beg to trouble you to say that it will be impossible for me to leave my duty here at present from the absence of the collector and surveyor of customs, the business of this office consequently devolving upon me. The collector Mr Willis has been at Aberdeen doing duty for some weeks and does not return probably sooner than fourteen days – Mr Mercer the surveyor being also absent at Edinburgh.”
Others however didn’t feel the need to be quite so specific about their affairs: “As I have very important and interesting business upon Monday which will take me up most part of the day it would be extremely inconvenient were I chosen one of the fifteen jurymen. Edinburgh 23rd January 1790.”
Serving on a jury can be an expensive business – loss of earnings, travel, childcare – and it was no different in 1820 when the court were implored to excuse this juror:
“Sir……. I have not wherewith to bear this expense, independent of putting decent clothes upon my back to appear in such a place. I therefore sincerely hope you will be so good as point out my entire inability from these circumstances to attend and I assure you it is not from any contempt of the law, which in these times should not be shown by any person who wishes well to his country. I have not even a horse to ride upon and the distance is very near forty miles.”
Unable to Travel
Some of those summoned appeared to make attempts to get there but circumstances were against them:
“…the petitioner was extremely desirous to obey the summons and attend his duty as juryman yet from the great distance he had to go, with the many ferries he had to cross, and the shortness of his time, he found it would be impossible for him to arrive soon enough to appear at the criminal court.”
“Humbly sheweth that the petitioner…..having this morning sett off from his house for that purpose had proceeded some miles on the road when he discovered that he had forgot his summons and for which he was obliged to return to his house for, which prevented him from coming forward in time.”
“From bodily indisposition it is not in my power to attend. These seven years by gone I never dare to go out of the house before 10 o’clock in the forenoon and never at no time after sunset in the evening and the last damp brings on my complaint on the other side.”
We’ve all had house guests who we don’t want to leave alone: “Some of my friends from Edinburgh having just arrived whom I cannot with propriety leave in my house by themselves, I hope your Lordships will have the goodness to dispense with my attendances at the circuit. Auldbarr, 7th September 1799.”
Some jurymen, however, were eager to serve even when not eligible. In 1790, John Menzies stood trial for murder at the circuit court in Perth. A guilty verdict was returned and he was sentenced to hang, but it was immediately discovered that two jurors were below the age of 25 and another, John Sharp, was under the age of 21. A lengthy debate ensued and while the jurors aged over 21 were deemed eligible to pass assize, Sharp was not – on the grounds that the law declared a person incapable of managing his own affairs before the age of 21 years. Menzies’ trial was declared null and void and he was acquitted.
He didn’t escape justice entirely however; a further debate over whether or not he could be tried again for the same crime determined that, as the first trial had not been legal, he could indeed be subjected to a second one. This took place at the High Court in Edinburgh in January 1791 where he received a lesser sentence of banishment from Scotland for the rest of his life.
National Records of Scotland holds hundreds of years of records from courts and prisons all over Scotland. You can find out more about crime and criminals in our records here.