The modern right to a trial by jury can be traced to the Magna Carta signed by King John of England in 1215. This document guaranteed to all free men the right to a trial by a jury of peers when accused of a crime. Jurors who serve on trials are pulled from a jury panel, which is a pool of people who have been tentatively approved to serve in this capacity.
The United States Constitution confirms the right of all US citizens to a trial by jury in criminal cases. This right is also available for civil cases, though a jury can be waived if both sides agree. Federal and state courts usually create a jury panel by randomly selecting names from established lists such as voter registrations and lists of licensed drivers. Some states also pull from a list of people who have filed a state income tax return in the previous year.
Names of potential jurors are randomly selected from these public lists and then sent a questionnaire to determine if they meet the minimum qualifications to serve. To be eligible to be on a jury panel in the US, a person must be 18 years of age, a citizen, able to speak and read English, have no disqualifying mental or physical ailment, and have no felony convictions. After the questionnaires have been returned, some names are eliminated and the rest are put into a general jury pool.
In both federal and state courts, a jury panel can be convened for either a grand or petit jury. A federal grand jury consists of 16 to 23 members and meets one to two days per week for up to a year. The purpose of a grand jury is to hear evidence and to determine if there is enough probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the accused may have committed the crime. If the grand jury agrees with the prosecutor, then it will hand down an indictment, or a charge, which can be levied against the party or parties involved.
Most people will serve on a petit jury panel which only hears one civil or criminal case. In criminal trials, 12 jurors and up to six alternate jurors are chosen to serve for the course of the trial. Federal civil trials use from six to 12 jurors, with no alternates. The number of jurors required on state civil cases can vary according to state laws.
In the United Kingdom, juries are generally reserved for major crimes which are tried by a 12 person jury in the Crown Court. By law, most minor crimes and almost all civil cases are heard by a magistrate. If a person is selected for jury duty, he will usually be required to report for ten business days and may serve on more than one trial. If a trial is lengthy, then the jurors must continue to serve until the case comes to a close. Occasionally a person may be asked to sit on a coroner’s jury or on a civil case either in the High Court or a country court.
In Australia, the Juries Act decreed that a jury is only used for criminal trials which fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme and District Criminal Courts. A jury panel is selected from registered voters between the ages of 18 and 70. A person with a criminal conviction may be able to serve, depending upon what crime he was convicted of and when the conviction occurred. Other people are exempt due to their job status, such as governors, practicing attorneys, judges, members of Parliament and other people who are employed in law enforcement or the criminal justice system.
Members of a Canadian jury panel are required to serve for two months, and must attend one or two jury selection processes during that time. Criminal cases use 12 jurors, while civil cases only use six. A trial by jury is required for criminal charges which can result in a sentence of five or more years. Most other crimes and most civil cases are tried before a judge.