I got my notice that I’d been called for Jury Duty at the end of February. I’d been called twice before and on both occasions, since I was teaching younger children and had letters of explanation from a former principal and a Justice of the Peace, I’d been excused.
I tried to research the process online and found only the videos provided by the government which talk up the value of the experience without really explaining what goes on for those called for jury duty before a trial begins. So I decided to post this recount of the experience for the benefit of anyone who might be going to have a similar experience.
This was a call from the Superior Court of Ontario so the details likely vary in other jurisdictions.
Jury Duty is an obligation of citizenship really akin to nothing in our system except a military draft. It is also an inconvenience to everybody, although a far greater one to some than others. It also pays not at all for the first 10 days and meagerly after that.
My appointment was at the John Sopinka Courthouse in the vary core of Downtown Hamilton. The building was originally a depression era post office but was renovated in the 1990s. I I arrived at the King St. entrance about 8:55 for my 9:00 call. The main entrance is on the other side of the building so there was no waiting in line. They warn you not to bring sharp objects in the letter you receive in the mail. You put your stuff in a tray and pass through a metal detector. A polite and patient Special Constable dug through my backpack.
The building occupies most of a city block so it was a long walk past the numerous, now shuttered, post office wickets to the elevators. As you can see in the photo, it’s a stunning lobby. I found the courtroom on the 6th floor. About 75 people were waiting in what looks just like an airport waiting area. There were only a few empty seats.
At about 9:15 two men took attendance using the numbers assigned on the documents we’d received in the mail. No names of prospective jurors are ever mentioned. About a dozen people hadn’t shown up. There’s no set penalty for not responding to the call for jury duty but you can be held in contempt of court. I suspect the names are simply put on the next list and the people are called again.
They finished taking attendance at about 9:40 and we were told to wait until the judge and other court officials and employees were ready. They finally called us in at about 10:10.
We were led into a a large, modern courtroom looking exactly like the ones you see on Canadian TV shows but with a glassed enclosure for the accused in the middle just in front of the padded pews for the public.
My first real surprise was that the accused was actually there as were the Defence and Crown Counsels. Later we learned that the trial would begin later that day, as soon as the jury had been selected.
The judge gave, what I am sure, was his standard lecture about the importance of serving on a jury, about how each of us, if chosen, would act as a judge. He also mentioned that it was inconvenient for everyone but the cornerstone of our system of jurisprudence.
The next half hour was taken up with people asking, and often being excused, for various reasons. First were those who knew the accused and accuser, witnesses and the various police and court officials. Then they moved on to other categories including Canadian Citizenship (you must be a citizen to serve on a jury), inability to hear clearly, proficiency in reading and understanding English, extreme financial impact and so forth. Some people had documents to support their appeal others responded to the judges queries anecdotally. Many were excused. Several had their names put back on the ledger for the next call.
Then they drew jury numbers randomly from a wooden jar and called 15 of us to the side of the courtroom. In turn, the were instructed to look at the accused and he at them. Then the two counsels either approved or excused each prospective juror in turn. Those who were chosen were then asked if they would swear solemnly or on a Bible. About two thirds chose not to sear on the Bible.
In my second surprise, more than half of the first group were refused by one or the other of the counsels.
They then called a further 15 people and repeated the process. By the time they’d chosen and sworn in 12 jurors only one of the second group remained. Thus, they had chosen 12 jurors from a randomly chosen group of 30.
At this point the judge announced that the jury would go to the jury room and the rest of us, about 50 people were thanked and excused.
I wasn’t looking forward to serving on a jury but, if I’d been chosen, I’d have felt better about it than I had going in. It is an obligation and someone has to do it. Better it be someone educated and in possession of all their faculties. I have no doubt that some juries have a difficult and unpleasant time when one or more members isn’t up to the task.