10 years after the Joan Clarke case struck down the ban on deaf people on juries, the first deaf person has sat on a jury and deliberated on a verdict.
Patricia Heffernan became the first deaf person to take part in deliberations after a criminal trial when she considered an indecent assault case in the Criminal Courts of Justice. She was assisted two Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpreters who took an oath not to interfere with the debate. Ms Heffernan had been called for jury service three times previously, however she was excused due to her condition.
Judge Sinead Ni Chulacain said at the end of the trial in the Circuit Criminal Court:
“I believe this is the first time a jury with a deaf member has reached a verdict in an Irish criminal trial. You are not the first jury with a deaf member but that [previous] jury didn’t proceed to reach a verdict. So I think this is the first time a jury with a deaf member has deliberated and reached a verdict. Particularly in International Week of the Deaf, I think I should acknowledge that little piece of history. Every step, even if small, towards equality is a good thing for all of society and I think everyone would join with me in that sentiment.
I also think on the day we are marking the importance of sign language, that we should acknowledge our wonderful interpreters and how professional they have been and express our gratitude to both of them for how smoothly everything has run and how they have normalised the whole process. I sincerely hope that this is the last time I feel I have to comment on the fact that there is a deaf member of a jury in Ireland and that it will become so normal as not to be worthy of noting anymore”.
Judge Ni Chulachain was also the judge in the first case where a deaf person was sworn in as a juror three years ago but the case concluded without going to the jury. At that time she compared the exclusion of deaf persons to the exclusion of women from juries, which did not end until the 1970s.
In 2006, Joan Clarke was excluded from jury service because she was deaf and would have needed a sign language interpreter. The law at the time stated that deaf persons were “unfit” to serve on a jury and Ms Clarke approached FLAC (the Free Legal Advice Centres) for assistance. FLAC took on her case and started a challenge in the High Court in November 2006. The case was heard in 2008 and two years later, in July 2010, the court struck down the blanket ban on deaf persons serving on juries and said that each situation would have to be decided on its merits. FLAC represented several other deaf persons called for jury service but none of them were selected.
Click here for a previous Guest Piece from Michael Farrell on the path to the first deaf juror in Ireland.