On Watch

Justice for All

Posted: May 28, 2013 11:58 AM ET Last Updated: May 28, 2013 11:58 AM ET
If you had to draw up a list of people you don't want to cross, chances are, your mother would be right at the top.  After all, if she can't reason with you, she can always guilt you.  She wins either way.

Someone else who should probably be right at the top of that list is a judge.  They can make your life miserable in so many ways.  That's true even if you're not accused of a crime.

And yet, a few dozen Nova Scotians seem intent on testing the patience and tolerance of judges.  Some of them are about to find out that's a bad idea.

The people in question were summoned for jury duty and failed to show up. 

This is not a new problem.  In fact, I wrote about it in this space in February when Justice Glen McDougall summoned nine missing jurors to explain themselves.Their explanations, by and large, were pretty feeble.  One woman ended up being fined $50.  Justice McDougall has held two subsequent hearings to track down more absentees, levying scoldings and fines in the process.

When I wrote my blog on this case, I predicted that the very public humiliation would teach people a lesson.  I was wrong.

Earlier this month, Justice Peter Rosinksi, frustrated at jurors failing to report for a murder trial, summoned 18 to explain themselves.  He fined three of the no-shows $200 each.

Just last week, Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy started presiding at another trial.  Ninety-five people did not show up for jury duty.  That's 40% of the pool.

"It's a duty to participate but not everybody apparently understands that," Justice Kennedy said in court.

He instructed sheriff's deputies to track down the missing 95 and bring them into court to explain themselves.

"Either we're going to do away with jury trials or we're going to do something about no-shows," Justice Kennedy said.  "And we are not going to do away with jury trials."
I've heard the jokes from some wags: Would you trust your fate to 12 people too stupid to talk their way out of jury duty?

The problem with the punchline is that I've been in a few jury trials, and the people drafted for duty are not stupid.  By and large, they have places they'd rather be, and things they'd rather be doing.  But they recognize their civic duty, and come to court.
While judges are leading the charge on this issue, they're not alone.  "Everybody that works in the criminal justice system, whether it's the defence, the Crown or the judiciary wants to make sure that the trial process works smoothly and fairly," said Halifax lawyer Josh Arnold.  He's past-president of the Nova Scotia Criminal Lawyers' Association. 

"And in order for a jury trial to work fairly, there has to be a large-enough panel of jurors to chose from in order to make up that jury," he said.

Arnold stressed that jury duty is not supposed to be an onerous burden on the people who serve. 

"There may be misunderstanding that if it is a real hardship for you to sit on a jury, if there are real legitimate reasons why you can't be there, and hardship is one of them, illness is one of them, that there is the ability for the presiding justice to excuse you from sitting on that jury or to defer your sitting on a jury to another date," Arnold said.

It's clear, judges are losing patience with the no-shows and their excuses.  At the last hearing he conducted, Justice McDougall instructed sheriff's deputies that in tracking them down "nothing short of a gravemarker will satisfy me."

And in his bid to get answers from the missing 95, Chief Justice Kennedy is telling deputies to serve notices in person, so that prospective jurors can no longer claim they didn't get a notice in the mail.

"I'm going to get these people off of Facebook and into this courtroom," Kennedy said.
"They're going to pull themselves away from Judge Judy's courtroom.  They're coming into my courtroom."

Justice Kennedy had one final, somewhat ominous warning for the missing ""When you contact them, sheriff, ask them to bring their toothbrushes with them."
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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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