courts, jury trials, law, lawyers, politics

Meanwhile, back in the jury room—

Given that the House of Commons Justice committee has been pre-occupied of late with l’affaire SCN Lavalin, it is hard to imagine that they’ve had time to do anything else, but kudos to them for finding the time to consider and approve private members Bill C-417, brought forward by conservative MP Michael Cooper.

The bill would relax the vow of secrecy taken by jurors in criminal trials to permit them to discuss their experience with appropriate mental health professionals. While the rule that jury deliberations must be secret and never be discussed outside of the jury room with anyone, is a salutary rule of long standing, it can create real difficulties for those jurors who find themselves adversely affected by their experience in the jury box.

As anyone who has participated in a lengthy criminal trial can attest it is exquisitely stressful experience, with immense pressure on everyone involved to “get it right”. While the strain is felt equally with the jurors by the prosecuting and defending lawyers and the trial judge, they all have a support network in place, and coping mechanisms honed by repeated exposure to the rigors of trial work.

Jurors however are plucked off the street, pulled away from their jobs and family, dropped into an alien environment deliberately designed to be intimidating, and populated by participants wearing odd costumes, and then hectored at every turn to be diligent, fair, and impartial-in other words”to get it right”

Worse, they are exposed to photographs and graphic descriptions of the worst imaginable violence, from gruesome crime scene footage to autopsy reports and eyewitness testimony. some of the evidence is horrific enough to turn the stomach of even seasoned investigators, so it’s little wonder that some jurors require counseling afterwards.

Until now, at least in order to remain within the law, a juror attempting to obtain treatment for the psychiatric aftermath of jury duty had to do so without discussing much of what transpired during the trial. While many salacious details of the case make their way into the public realm, and can be discussed, consider for example,  the psychological toll paid by a hold-out juror, standing firm against the other eleven. How can they seek effective mental health treatment without discussing what went on in the jury room?

The approval of Bill C-417 by the Justice committee pays the way for a return to the House of Commons for third reading. Now, private members’ bills, especially those introduced by opposition MPs, seldom make it through the entire legislative gauntlet but here’s hoping that this one does. Easing the rules only slightly in order to permit jurors to avail themselves of the services of psychologists, psychiatrists or counselors is the right thing to do.

Passage of the Bill surely doesn’t put us in any danger of descending into the media circus that constitutes the jury system in the US, where a summons to jury duty is seen by some as their ticket to their 15 minutes of fame. Rather, it elevates our system, by recognizing the sacrifice made by those called to serve.


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