Ontario jury trials to resume next week — but not in a courtroom
Metro Toronto Convention Centre will host jury selection beginning Sept. 16
Faced with a major backlog of cases and pandemic health concerns, Ontario Superior Court is resuming jury trials next week by moving the jury selection process out of the courtroom and into the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, CBC Toronto has learned.
Although some legal matters have resumed, jury trials — which involve serious crimes and more personnel in the courtroom — have been shut down since March.
That finally changes on Sept.16.
To ensure physical distancing and other health and safety measures are followed, jury selection will be moved off-site at some court locations.
In Toronto, jury selection that would normally take place at the University Avenue Superior Court will be moved to the convention centre, Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General has confirmed.
"Nothing is more important than protecting the health and safety of the public and all court participants," ministry spokesperson Brian Gray said in a statement.
Since July, Ontario courtrooms have gradually reopened with enhanced safety measures in place, including enhanced cleaning, face coverings and barriers in place.
"These measures will also be in place at the convention centre," the statement said.
Prospective jurors will be screened for COVID-19 three times before entering a court.
First, after receiving a summons, they'll complete an online prescreening process to avoid unnecessary in-person appearances. Those considered high-risk will be exempted.
Second, an online check-in must be completed 48 hours before going to court for the selection process.
And finally, all potential jurors will be screened on location before entering.
But while moving jury selection to the spacious Metro Toronto Convention Centre may alleviate concern about COVID-19, it presents its own risks — security, in particular.
Courthouses are high-security settings with armed police officers and metal detectors at entrances.
Inside, the buildings are designed with secure areas for detained individuals. Courtrooms are small and easy to monitor, with separate entrances for judges, lawyers and the public.
By contrast, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre is a two-million-square-foot facility, with multiple points of access. It was scheduled to host the Canada Bridal Show this weekend..
"I'm extremely concerned about the move to larger venues," Mark Farrant, founder of the Canadian Juries Commission, said in an interview
Farrant's non-profit commission advocates for jurors and lobbies the government to improve the conditions under which they serve.
He says there are serious security problems for jurors at existing courthouses, and he wonders how they'll be protected inside a big, makeshift venue.
"Jurors have reported over the years people following them to their cars and following them through public spaces," Farrant said.
"So, I'm concerned about moving the jury to very large, open spaces and a convention centre setting without ensuring their fundamental right to privacy and security," he added.
"I haven't seen a lot of dialogue on that front."
Local police services are responsible for security at courthouses, as well transporting people in custody, according to Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General.
"The ministry has worked closely with the Toronto Police Service to develop plans for use of the convention centre," the ministry's statement said.
Pandemic pay for jurors?
Along with making sure jurors are safe from COVID-19 and security threats, Farrant also wants better compensation.
It's a demand he's long pushed for. Just last week, former jurors and advocates like Farrant marked the 25th anniversary of the Paul Bernardo murder trial by claiming that juror compensation hasn't improved since 1995.
Jurors are not compensated for the first 10 days of a trial, they receive $40 a day from days 11 to 49, and $100 a day from Day 50 onward.
Farrant says if the government is going to require people to serve on juries during a pandemic, the potential health risks they're taking should be recognized.
"Just as we bumped up pay ... for frontline and essential workers, jury pay should follow suit," he said.
Responding to last week's demands for better juror compensation, ministry spokesperson Brian Gray pointed out that potential jurors can request to be excused due to financial hardship.