Ontario residents ignoring jury duty

MICHELE MANDEL, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:07 AM ET

TORONTO - It arrives in the mail, a jury summons that more and more people are choosing to simply ignore.

The cynical wisdom is that juries are made up of people too dumb to avoid them and up until now, the courts have turned a blind eye to this finger at justice.

But after two high profile cases of jury panel no-shows already this year, judges are warning there will be consequences for citizens who refuse to do their civic duty.

"A jury summons is not an invitation," writes Ontario Superior Court Justice Casey Hill in a stern judgment released last week. "Nor is it a mere option to volunteer to be a juror. It cannot simply be ignored. It is a court order with consequences for disobedience."

Retired Justice Dan Ferguson is not holding his breath.

"It happens every day in every courthouse and it has for 20 years," he said in an interview, "and they just ignore it. It's sad."

And truth be told, you can hardly blame people for not rushing to fulfil the privilege of being on a jury -- not when it's akin to slave labour.

For the honour of sitting as a juror in Ontario for weeks on end, you are expected to leave your family and workplace for long hours each day, while being paid absolutely nothing for the first 10 days and only $50 a day for the next 39.

"That's well below the minimum wage, it doesn't even cover child care for the day," argues Paul Burstein, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association. "We don't even pay for their parking.

"It's not surprising that the modern consequence is that people say to heck with it, I'm not going to show up. I can't afford to show up."

Just last week, almost half of the 600 people ordered to appear for jury duty in the Jordan Manners murder trial didn't bother to report to the Metro Convention Centre.

Justice John McMahon has ordered a report into why 270 potential jurors stayed away. His concern comes on the heels of his Brampton colleague examining the growing problem of Peel Region residents not showing up for potential jury duty. Hill found from September 2010 to January 2011, the fail-to-appear rate of prospective jurors was between 11 and 20%.

The last straw occurred Jan. 19 when a second-degree murder trial had to be delayed when 219 potential jurors were expected at the Brampton courthouse and only 174 turned up. In an unprecedented move, Hill ordered the missing jurors be tracked down and told to appear before him Feb. 17.

Of the shaking dozens who arrived, many had valid excuses, but six did not. Hill said they could have faced contempt of court charges and a fine but he decided to go easy on them because this was the first inquiry of its kind.

"Going forward," the judge warned, "random checks of jury panel member absences can be expected with punishment where warranted."

A Google search of "getting out of jury duty Canada" will display 76,600 different websites offering the best advice to avoid your civic duty. Sit through a jury selection and nearly everyone hesitantly approaches the judge with an excuse: vacation plans, child care issues, hearing problems but most common of all, financial hardship.

The result, warns the retired Superior Court judge, is that juries are increasingly not representative at all, but instead are made up of retirees, the unemployed and those financially able to be away from their jobs.

"It's a skewed system," complains Ferguson, who presided in Whitby.

But he also understands why people are reluctant to serve. In an article he wrote shortly after retiring two years ago, Ferguson "let off steam" by comparing jury duty to serving in a work camp for a dictatorship because of the "pittance" jurors are paid.

"Yes, trial by jury is a fundamental part of our justice system," he wrote. "But it should not be operated in a way that punishes the jurors."

He called on the government to increase jury compensation, but wasn't surprised that request fell on deaf ears.

"Nothing will happen," he said.

Making finding a jury of your peers increasingly a moot point.

michele.mandel@sunmedia.ca


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