Filling juries in small N.W.T. communities a growing problem

The problems of finding jurors for trials in small communities was highlighted in a recent N.W.T. court decision.

11 mistrials since January 2012 due to lack of jurors

The problems of finding jurors for trials in small communities was highlighted in a recent N.W.T. court decision.

Since January 2012 the inability to find enough jurors has been the reason for 11 mistrials in the N.W.T.

N.W.T.'s Supreme Court says it tries to hold trials in the community a crime takes place in order to make it easier for the accused and witnesses to attend, but in communities with only a couple of hundred people, finding residents without relationships to the the victim or the accused can be next to impossible.

The problems of finding jurors for trials in small communities were highlighted in a recent N.W.T. court decision by Justice Shannon Smallwood. (CBC)

"Sometimes it's just not possible to select a jury in the smaller communities," said Jeff Round, director of court services. "It can be because of the close personal ties in the communities or because of knowledge of the event."

But in a recent decision by Justice Shannon Smallwood, she pointed out impartiality isn't the only problem; more and more people are just not showing up for jury duty.

Behchoko, with a population of about 2,000, is N.W.T.'s largest Tlicho community, but the last two jury trials there have been declared mistrials because the court was unable to find enough jurors.

"With over 1,000 people potentially eligible to serve on a jury, selecting a jury in Behchoko should not be an issue and in the past, it frequently has not been an issue," Smallwood wrote in her decision. 

Daryle Jackson Blackduck​ was scheduled to be tried on a charge of sexual assault the week of April 28. The court sent out a total of 250 jury summons; 120 of those potential jurors were required to attend court for jury selection; of those, 57 showed up.

In the previous mistrial in Behchoko, Smallwood noted only 40 per cent of those summoned for jury duty came to court.

"It is a worrisome trend that appears to be developing in Behchoko and, if it continues, may jeopardize the Court’s ability to hold jury trials in that community," she wrote.

In Blackduck's case, six of the 57 people who attended jury selection were selected as jurors. Shortly after, one had to be excused for a personal matter, leaving five jurors and seven empty jury seats.

Smallwood instructed the court sheriff to go out on the street and round up 30 more people for jury selection. The next morning, 25 out of the 30 people summoned showed up. Four more jurors were selected before that pool was also exhausted. Smallwood then declared a mistrial.

Blackduck's defence lawyer challenged the jury panel, arguing the methods used by the court sheriff in summoning people off the street for jury duty were equivalent to pre-screening of jurors, but Smallwood dismissed the application.

A new trial for Blackduck is scheduled for January 2015 in Yellowknife.