Canadian jurors who face mental health issues should be able to talk about it

Jury duty is mandatory in Canada. Jurors should have the right to talk about the case they served on to a professional mental health professional.

Joseph Fang Toronto Ontario

Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day, a day to promote awareness around issues of mental health. It’s encouraging that recently there is much increased awareness about the causes and symptoms of mental health issues. However, one group of Canadians sometimes overlooked are those who are asked to fulfil the last mandatory form of civic duty since the abolition of conscription--jurors.

Imagine having your life interrupted to sit on a jury. Imagine during the trial being exposed to horrific evidence. No matter how gruesome you can’t close your eyes, and you can’t turn away. You have to sit there and take it in, all the while doing your best to keep your emotions in check and remain objective. Now imagine following the conclusion of the trial being sequestered for hours, if not days or weeks, with 11 strangers reviewing gruesome evidence, and applying difficult facts to complex law. You want to reach the right verdict. However, you are understandably stressed having regard for the gravity of the decision in seeing that justice is done. Now imagine after reaching a verdict never being able to talk about the deliberation process with anyone for life--not even a mental health professional.

That is precisely what jurors in high stakes trials across Canada face. Indeed, talking about the deliberation process with anyone, even a mental health professional, is not just forbidden, it is a criminal offence pursuant to section 649 of the Criminal Code. This is often known as the jury secrecy rule.

The experience of jurors varies considerably. After all, people react differently to different things. Some jurors are able to more or less get on with their life even in the most difficult of trials. Others are haunted by the experience and suffer from stress, anxiety and even PTSD, years and even decades later. Tina Daenzer who served on the jury of the1995 Paul Bernardo trial continues to suffer from the experience. Although the crimes of Bernardo are about as horrific as they come, there are gruesome trials every day in Canada that don’t receive the same level of notoriety.

Being unable to talk about the deliberation process with anyone, for life, is a serious impediment to getting help for jurors who are suffering. When I served on the Justice Committee in the last Parliament, we undertook a study on juror supports, and the jurors we heard from told us this. After all, how can one get better when they are unable to talk about the core of their injury?

That is why a key recommendation of our unanimous all-party report was to amend section 649 and carve out a narrow exception to the jury secrecy rule. That narrow exception would allow former jurors who are suffering from mental health issues arising from their jury service to discuss all aspects of their jury service with a mental health professional bound by confidentiality. This exception would protect the integrity of the jury secrecy rule, the purpose of which is to protect the sanctity of the deliberation process, the finality of a verdict and the privacy of jurors, while enabling former jurors to get the full mental health support that they need and deserve.

Too often good ideas in parliamentary committee reports are forgotten as reports go on shelves and collect dust.  That’s what might have happened had I not decided to introduce my Private Members’ Bill C-417 in the last Parliament to implement this key recommendation. In the non-partisan spirit of the Bill, in which there was complete consensus from all witnesses when the Justice Committee studied the issue, I asked then NDP MP Murray Rankin to second the Bill. To his credit, Justice Minister David Lametti was immediately supportive, and with the government’s help I was able to get Bill C-417 passed expeditiously through the House of Commons with unanimous support at all stages. Unfortunately, there was insufficient time for the Bill to pass in the Senate before the dissolution of Parliament. As a result, it died on the order paper.

Fortunately in this Parliament, Conservative Senator Pierre-Hughes Boisvenu has introduced a substantively similar Bill S-207 in the Senate, which I am proud to be the House of Commons sponsor. As one of the first Bills introduced in this Parliament, thanks to the leadership of Senator Boisvenu, I am much more confident that there will be sufficient time for the Bill to clear both houses of Parliament.

Jurors play a critical role in the administration of justice in Canada. Carving out this exception is a small but important change that will go a long way to help former jurors. I am hopeful that Parliamentarians from all parties will put aside partisanship, as they did in the last Parliament, and see that Senator Boisvenu’s Bill S-207 is passed unanimously and expeditiously.


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