Calgary

Jury members in Alberta to be offered mental health support

All Albertans who serve on juries will soon get free access to mental-health services.

New program a recognition that serving on a jury can be a traumatic experience

An artist's drawing depicts B.C. Supreme Court Justice James W. Williams addressing the jury in the murder trial of Robert Pickton in a New Westminster, B.C., courtroom in November 2007. The Pickton trial, which lasted almost a year, was the kind of lengthy, complex trial that can put a strain on jurors — not just emotionally but financially. (Jane Wolsak/Canadian Press)

All Albertans who serve on juries will soon get free access to mental-health services.

The government is in negotiations with a counselling provider and is set to roll out the initiative in the coming months.

The program is part of the Juror Recommendations Project — the result of a 300 page report from 2009 that aims to address the comfort of people who serve on juries.

Mental health of those citizens is a key aspect of that goal and starting soon, every prospective juror will be given a package at the outset of a trial with information about how to access the services.

Stephen Holden killed himself a few months after the conclusion of a gruesome murder trial for which he served as a juror in the UK in 2012. (Natalie Alexandre )

For those who've had the experience of sitting on a jury, the support is a welcome concept. Bryan Burt served on two juries in Calgary, including an attempted murder trial.

He says he has mentally blocked out some of the more graphic evidence.

"We're not really prepared for that, it's not something you see every day and when you do see it, it's a shock, it's very stressful being on a jury," said Burt. “We see a lot of traumatic things so it would be helpful to have somebody to talk to afterwards."

Some jurors have already benefited from the program. Over the last year, judges have made it available in trials where the evidence was most likely to be upsetting or disturbing. 

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Earl Wilson says it's extremely important for the government to take care of those who fulfill a duty of their citizenship.

"It's the least we can do, to make sure that the experience they go through is not something that's going to be left with them in the sense of a negative or overpowering psychological or emotional devastation," says Wilson.

“It's just completely improper for us to ignore it and to let it go by and essentially say to a juror, 'Well thanks very much for serving but too bad.'"

Wilson says in the past, there was nothing available to jury members. But now more than ever, it's important to pro-actively address potential harm.

He says courts are seeing more and more disturbing evidence, specifically when a crime is video-taped. He cites the Bernardo and Magnotta trials as examples.

"We have had situations first responders themselves have been traumatized, so we've learned from that," said Wilson.

"You can imagine where there are cases where there's an actual homicide committed on tape or something akin to that, anyone seeing something like that, knowing this is not fantasy, this is not TV, this is the real thing, can obviously have a pretty devastating effect on people whose lives otherwise have never been exposed to such difficult circumstances."

Worst case scenario 

Natalie Alexandre knows what the worst case scenario is for those who are traumatized by what they see in court. In 2012, her uncle served on a jury for four months in the UK.

The evidence at the murder trial was gruesome and Alexander's uncle killed himself a couple of months after the trial ended.

Before that, he'd never shown signs of any mental health issues, she said. 

"He decided he just couldn't take it anymore," says Alexandre. "I one hundred per cent believe that's why he's not here."

Forensic psychologist and lawyer Patrick Baillie says people like judges, lawyers and expert witnesses often have a diminished sensitivity to graphic evidence. But citizens who serve on juries aren't used to it and can be more susceptible to mental health issues.

"For a citizen who's not familiar with the criminal justice system, that can be shocking," said Baillie. "It is associated with a death and so it meets the first criteria for PTSD and it's an emotionally charged environment so ... it can be very distressing for them."

Baillie says people who serve on juries are exemplary citizens and the government is doing the right thing by taking responsibility for them.

Beyond the traumatizing effects of graphic evidence, the stress of the task itself can be harmful to jurors' mental well-being, he said. Personality conflicts as well as the high-stakes job members have been tasked with can be stressful.

At the point of deliberations, a dozen strangers are holed-up in a room together for many hours, sometimes for days on-end.

In 2013, 252 Albertans served as jurors at trials across the province.

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