Jury Duty in Toronto, Canada

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Democracy in Canada does not usually directly affect individuals in our society. Usually it is when something goes awry that one sees democracy in action. I guess we take democracy for granted, until it is somehow revoked. Some people look for trouble and get arrested, while the rest of us lead law abiding lives and stay out of trouble. For the average citizen jury duty breaks the veneer of average living and brings democracy to the fore. Jury duty is when your average citizen is called to potentially be selected as a juror for a court case. Mandated by law and therefore mandatory for all citizens over 18 years old, citizens are randomly selected for jury duty, and again randomly selected to become an actual juror. In a world of technology, where certainty and sharp contrasts prevail, I found this randomness surprisingly refreshing.

People get into trouble, be it their fault or not. Legal charges are brought against them, or they bring legal charges against someone else. These cases are fought in a court of law by lawyers prosecuting or defending. Lawyers for the province are called Crown lawyers. There is a judge that keeps everything fair for both sides. Then there are jurors, the average citizens that decide innocent or guilty. Jurors are so very important to the process, and therefore democracy.

Somehow I have always been a magnet for Mainland Chinese people here in Toronto. They always seem to want to talk to me in Mandarin. Drawn to me was a man in his 60s from Shandong, China. He explained to be that though he is a Canadian citizen and has been in Canada for over a decade his level of English was insufficient to understand the court reporter. Though he tried to tell many people, his simple daily English betrayed his lack of deeper English listening skills. Still, he told me that doing jury duty was much better than in China, where there are no juries at all, judgments made only by an appointed judge. The Canadian way is much better. With a stubbled beard he has been called twice within 6 years.

Randomness starts early in the process. There are 3.4 million citizens in the City of Toronto, an estimated 2.5 million over the age of 18. From this pool of citizens, an estimated 200 are selected weekly for jury duty, to become possible jurors. These 200 are divided into 4 groups of about 50 citizens each. When a case requires a jury one group (for a civil case) or two groups (for a criminal case) are sent to the court room.

Civil legal cases require 8 jurors. The court reporter puts all the names of prospective jurors into a cylindrical container and rolls the container in order to randomize the selection. Eight people are selected, called to stand beside the court reporter. Names and occupations are read for each citizen. Either lawyer can kick out a maximum of 4 jurors, no reason given. This is called a challenge. When a juror is kicked out, another citizen is randomly selected by the court reporter as replacement. The process continues until the lawyers agree on a jury or when they have reached their maximum number of jurors they do not like. No other questions are asked of prospective jurors. The process is actually quite efficient.

Criminal cases require 12 jurors, with no limit of “rejects” by either lawyer. Fifteen or twenty prospective jurors are selected at random by the court reporter. Their names and occupations are read individually. Lawyers again can accept or challenge. Prospective jurors are not asked any questions by the lawyers nor the judge, with the exception of clarification of occupation. No reasons are given for contesting a citizen. There also seemed to be no logic in accepting or challenging prospective jurors. This process can take quite a long time. While the process can seem inefficient, it does look very impartial and therefore fair to both parties. The outcome of a criminal case is serious for the accused, so I am glad the process goes to such lengths for impartiality.

Criminal cases are very different because prospective jurors are asked to look at the accused and the accused is asked to look at the prospective juror. There is a tension in the air when this occurs, and is felt throughout the jury panel. The accused will know your name, occupation and city, as does all in the courtroom. If convicted would they hunt down jurors when released? Searching and finding for people on Google is very simple and in most cases very effective. We have much information about ourselves online that is readily accessible by anyone.

A hot topic of discussion amongst prospective jurors is how to be challenged by either lawyer and therefore not become a juror. Health issues were the main reason for disallowing a prospective juror. There are other inventive reasons but I will not divulge them. I believe citizens should do their part in our legal system and if they do not experience extreme hardship, should fulfill their legal obligation of jury duty.

Most of the time in jury duty is idle. There are back issue magazines and National Geographic to read, but no newspapers. There is no internet access, but you could bring your own wireless access. Those on computers checked email once in a while, but usually were seen playing games or not using their computers. There are other people to converse. You are able to eat and talk on the phone in the waiting room. Life in the waiting room is non eventful. There is a one hour lunch break.

I had expected a heavy police presence at the court room. I had visions of G20 style goons in riot gear, accosting and challenging citizens, but this is not the case. There are police at the entrance and within the halls, but they are low keyed and kept to themselves. Police intimidation is left to the street. Courts seem more about fairness than a show of force. Calmness does prevail.

Jury duty disrupts the life of the average citizen, but reminds us that we have an integral part in the democratic process. It is well worth the expense in court and to citizens. The process for prospective jurors, while a little tense, is educational and memorable.

Addendum Mar 29 2016: Caitlyn has written me to point out an age-old phone scam. Someone calls you up and says that you have missed your jury duty, and the Court Marshall is about to issue a warrant and arrest you at your home. If you send them money these people will call off the Marshall and make everything ok. This is certainly a scam. Courts in Canada would send you registered mail if you were in trouble with them, and never by a phone call. If you do get a call about missing jury duty and someone offers to make it right by sending them money, hang up.

Another related scam is the Canada Revenue Agency phone scam, where a supposed CRA agent calls you to say that you owe them back taxes and the police are coming to arrest you at your home. If you send them a partial payment they will call off the police. This is a scam. The CRA always writes you about any judgments they do and does not call you on the phone. They certainly do not dispatch police to arrest you at your home. Simply hang up, because this, too, is a scam.

Yesterday someone called me using the CRA scam. As I know about this scam there is nothing the automated message could do. On top of this the scam was American and I have no business with the IRS. These people prey on those that do not know. They are scum.

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