Gruesome testimony, paltry pay: MPs to study jurors' mental health, financial needs

Next week MPs will begin a groundbreaking study of the impact of jury duty on mental health to determine what specialized services, funding and new policies are needed.

Justice committee plans to hear from past jury members and PTSD experts in first-of-its kind study

Section 649 of the Criminal Code makes it clear that it's an offence for a juror to disclose "any information relating to the proceedings of the jury when it was absent from the courtroom that was not subsequently disclosed in open court. (CBC)

Jurors are required to hear horrific details of crime and view photos of bloody scenes and dead bodies, sometimes in trials that drag on for weeks, months or even years.

The job comes with little compensation and few supports, and MPs on the justice committee say that needs to change.

Next week, they will begin a groundbreaking study of the impact of jury duty on mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to determine what specialized services, funding and new policies could be required.

Liberal MP and justice committee chair Anthony Housefather said it's an issue that has gone under the radar too long, and that there is limited understanding of the psychological effects and financial burden.

"The main thing we need to do is make sure people who serve on juries have the proper support that they need afterward; that it doesn't cost them money when they've served Canada and their communities," he told CBC News. "They shouldn't have to go broke to pay for psychiatrists or psychologists after they've served on a jury."

The committee will hear from experts in various fields to get a deeper understanding of the sources of stress at every stage of the juror experience, from being in the selection pool, to hearing complex testimony, to taking part in deliberations and reaching a verdict that may profoundly change people's lives.

Call for participants

To that end, the committee has taken the unusual step of making a public call for past jurors to participate in the hearings that will begin Monday.

Housefather said the committee could recommend ways for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to work with her provincial and territorial partners to improve post-trial care for jurors, including greater awareness and recognizing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I'm not sure we have recognized mental health issues in as profound a way before. It's possible that these issues existed before, but jurors didn't come forward and people didn't recognize them. So now I think for the first time, we're starting to recognize this might actually be an issue," he said.

Shocking trial underway in Toronto

The parliamentary study comes as a shocking first-degree murder trial unfolds in a Toronto courtroom, with the jury wrestling with a daily feed of graphic testimony and disturbing photos.

Dellen Millard, 32, is accused of killing 23-year-old Laura Babcock along with Mark Smich, 30.

A jury is hearing graphic evidence in the trial of two men accused of killing Laura Babcock, a University of Toronto graduate. (Toronto Police Service/Canadian Press)

Court has seen photos of a smiling Smich standing in front of the huge animal incinerator the Crown alleges was used to burn the Toronto woman's body in 2012, as well as photos of what is believed to be burning bones inside the machine.

Conservative justice critic Rob Nicholson said along with the trauma of gruesome evidence, jurors must also endure considerable disruption to their daily lives and families, and often suffer significant financial loss.

Compensation for jurors varies from province to province, and supports for child or elder care are limited. In Ontario, for example, jurors receive no payment for the first 10 days of the case, then $40 a day up to day 49. After the 50th day, the payment rises to $100 a day. 

Employers are not legally required to pay a salary for employees summoned for jury duty, although some have policies to top up the provincial compensation.

Nicholson said that to date, there has been a "complete gap" in Canadian studies on the crucial role of jurors.

'Upstanding citizens'

"There is no training," he said. "These are just upstanding citizens who are prepared to serve their country and the criminal justice system, and it's time we look into just what the effect that can have on them and what, if anything, can be improved.

"I'm hoping people take a look and then say, OK, are we doing right by these people who are an essential part of our judicial system and is there more that we could be doing?"

Mark Farrant suffered from PTSD after serving as jury foreman in a brutal murder case.

Mark Farrant, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving jury duty in a brutal murder case, will testify at the House of Commons justice committee which is studying the impact of trials on mental health. (CBC)

In April 2014, 31-year-old Farshad Badakhshan was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, four years after he slit her throat and stabbed her repeatedly before setting their rooming house in Toronto's Annex area on fire.

As part of the trial, Farrant was required to hear graphic testimony and view autopsy and crime scene photos.

Life-altering process

He said it felt like an "abrupt stop" when the trial ended and it was time move on to his regular life.

"For some, depending on the images, it can be incredibly life-altering," he told CBC News. "And what a lot of people have found is that accessing help, if it's required and you need it after the trial has concluded, can be difficult."

NDP MP Alistair MacGregor, who proposed the committee study, said hearings could help close a big knowledge gap on the impacts of jury duty.

"It's very well documented what people in the military go through, what our first responders go through, but I don't think anyone has really made the link between jurors and what they witness in a trial," he said. 

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections. Follow her on Twitter @ottawareporter