Opinion: Skip jury duty, help a charity

Peter Stanford

I can't seem to get away from the words 'public benefit'. First there is the on-going debate about the draft Charities Bill and what should constitute a charitable purpose. And now I am spending the next two weeks on jury service, where, every time a court official talks to you, they mention public benefit - usually in the tone of voice that a teacher might use with naughty children.

There is a lot of frustration, you see, in the jury room. I think they have designed the system to give jurors a flavour of what a custodial sentence might be like before they ask us to find anybody guilty. So far, from 9.30 to 4.30 each day, I have been shut in a too small room with a lot of other people - no desks for your laptop, no phones, too few loos, not enough seats and an appalling snack bar for which you are given a swipe card which just about covers the cost of a glass of tap water. We're waiting for a trial to need us, but the system creaks, the exact moment cannot be predicted, and so there's a lot of sitting round. Public benefit seems a distant concept.

The perfectly understandable reasons for the delays have been explained to us, but this afternoon, as I sipped my tap water, it did occur to me that we might modify the summoning process so that those who already put in time as volunteers in the third sector - bringing a public benefit - might offset it against days spent waiting around to be on a jury. For example, what many charities lack on their trustee panels are people in mid-career at the height of their powers. They're just too busy juggling work, young families and mortgages to put in the hours as a trustee.

How about giving them an incentive? Put in a set number of hours on a trustee panel in a constructive and satisfying way, using your unique expertise, and as a result be allowed to opt out of the often frustrating experience of jury service. I know you're thinking it would set me free from my current imprisonment - and you're right. But it might just also help us tackle one major area of weakness at trustee level in our charities.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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