Civil Grand Jury


My good friend John Connell’s blog is always worth a read and so it was this week when  I came across his post about the Civil Grand Jury system in San Mateo, California.

The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury is an independent investigative body created by the California State Constitution. Composed of nineteen citizens, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury serves as a “watchdog for citizens of the county.”

A Civil Grand Jury is charged with a grave responsibility. The Civil Grand Jury serves as an ombudsperson for the citizens of San Mateo County. The jury may receive and investigate complaints by individuals regarding the actions or performances of county or public officials. The attention of the entire county is centered upon an active Civil Grand Jury, and its every act is a matter of public interest. Malevolent and unfaithful public servants are uneasy, while honest citizens and the conscientious public servants are reassured. Therefore, Grand Jury service calls for diligence, impartiality, courage and responsibility.

Empowered by the state judicial system, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury submits meaningful solutions to a wide range of problems. The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury is a volunteer, fact finding body with the potential to recommend constructive changes.

John was particularly interested in the Jury’s finding in relation to the question:

Are school districts in San Mateo County utilizing online and virtual classroom programs to expand and supplement the curriculum?

The recommendations made by the Jury in relation to this question are certainly worth reading and go way beyond what an offical might suggest. 

Looking further into the previous Jury Reports I came across the “Performance Review of San Mateo County Education Office” Within the system the Jury can gather evidence, call witnesses and make visits – all which strengthen the validity of the process. 

In Scotland, local authorities were recommended by the Audit Commission’s Report of 1993 to establish audit committees which have evolved in most authorities as Scrutiny Committees, which according to a 2005 report have proliferated but whose “effectiveness is patchy”.

The “audit committee” process in Scotland is dominated by the need to fulfil the requirement to audit of accounts – see  audit committee principles

There are three fundamental principles which define the expression “audit committee principles” and these are that there should be effective mechanisms in place to provide;

  • independent assurance of the adequacy of the risk management framework and the associated control environment within the authority;
  • independent scrutiny of the authority’s financial and nonfinancial performance to the extent that it affects the authority’s exposure to risk and weakens the control environment; and
  • assurance that any issues arising from the process of drawing up, auditing and certifying the authority’s annual accounts are properly dealt with.

None of the various scrutiny systems in Scottish local authorities go anywhere near the scope and range of the Civil Grand Jury.  In most cases the Scottish system is based upon elected members who review and scrutinise the work of their peers. Given the ever growing expectation for public service to be more transparent and to involve citizens in a meaningful manner I wonder if we could develop something akin to the system. I’m not arguing here for the removal of elected member involvement in the scrutiny process but I am intrigued by the potential of a Civil Grand Jury to:

“submit meaningful solutions to a wide range of problems” and “act as a fact finding body with the potential to recommend constructive changes.”

I’m sure there a number of issues that we face in East Lothian which would benefit from a citizen’s perspective upon which policy and practice could be developed.