'New, creative ways' of running jury trials required due to COVID-19, Chief Justice says
WINNIPEG -- Criminal trials involving a jury could look a little different, even once measures to contain COVID-19 are loosened.
When the pandemic started, the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench postponed all jury trials scheduled before Jun. 30 to help contain the spread of the virus. A number of other provinces have also postponed jury trials.
While it’s still not clear when they’ll resume, the court which runs jury trials in Manitoba is exploring how it might be able to do so in the near future, while maintaining physical distancing.
Under normal circumstances, 12 jurors would be required to work and sit in close quarters, listening to evidence and then deciding the outcome a case. Even prior to a case getting started, the jury selection process requires dozens of people to attend the courthouse at the same time.
Chris Gamby with the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba understands why the decision was made to postpone jury trials, but now wonders what will happen next.
“Where we go form here, I don’t know,” said Gamby. “It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, can be done to move those processes forward – if there’s a way to have jury trials proceed with some added safety in place.”
NEW WAYS OF RUNNING JURY TRIALS MAY BE REQUIRED
Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal said the court expects it will be required to “examine new, creative ways” of running jury trials.
“Everything right now is on the table,” said Joyal. “We will be providing every service that we can, subject obviously, to the conditions that we have to live with.”
“Even if, for example, we are in kind of a new normal and the social distancing is perhaps not as stringent or mandated as it is now, we still may have to, because of the presence of a latent virus, take precautions.”
Joyal said that could include reconfiguring jury boxes or moving trials off site, where there’s more room to allow for physical distancing.
“Which is to say away from the law courts in bigger halls or convention centres, where there’s more room for juries to meet in jury rooms and to sit and hear the evidence,” he said.
Joyal said while it’s too soon to say definitively when it’ll be safe for jury trials to resume, it’s expected cases already scheduled to take place after Jun.30 will move ahead.
So far, six jury trials – which were scheduled to take place between the start of the pandemic and Jun.30 – have been postponed, with two of those cases involving accused people who are in custody.
While the accused people in the six affected cases have the option of proceeding with a trial by judge alone, it’s their right to be tried by a jury.
“The cases that were set for jury trial in that period from Mar.16 to Jun.30 – they were mandated to have what was called a resolution or case management meeting with the presiding trial judge who would’ve been presiding at the jury trial,” said Joyal. “At that meeting, the judge met with counsel and explored the possibility of re-elections or resolution. Most of those cases are still proceeding to a jury trial, there’s one case that may proceed to a judge alone.”
“We’ve done basically everything we can or could’ve done to see whether there’s an alternative way to proceed but right now those cases involve, for the most part, accused persons who are holding steady to their election, which is their right, to have a trial by jury.”
JURORS MAY FACE STRESS IN THE WAKE OF COVID-19
Once trials are permitted to continue, an advocate for jurors said some Canadians will still be facing economic and mental hardship from the pandemic and that being summoned for jury duty could add extra stress to their lives.
“Canadians are going to be worried about their jobs, they’re going to worried about maintaining the job that they have – not upsetting the workplace,” said Mark Farrant with the Canadian Juries Commission. “They’re going to be the most resistant, I think for very good reasons, to a jury summons beyond the physical and emotional concerns that they have going into court.”
Farrant said he’s been advocating for the daily jury allowance to be increased to $120 a day across Canada, to help people deal with the extra burden.
“Jury pay is paltry at best and if Canadians are experiencing unemployment or insecurity, the least we can do is provide them with a fair jury duty allowance”
Karen Wiebe with the Manitoba Organization for Victim Assistance understands the need for precautions, but hopes courts will also keep in mind the needs of family members of homicide victims when deciding how to proceed.
She said going through the justice system is already difficult, noting families sometimes find themselves waiting months, and in some cases years, for answers about how a loved one died.
“Any delays are excruciating and certainly if things end up being delayed because of [COVID-19] that doesn’t help,” said Wiebe.
CLEAR GUIDELINES REMAIN FOR JURY SELECTION
In non-jury cases, Joyal said matters where an accused person is in custody are proceeding. He said there have been adjournments in some cases if people involved in the case have raised concerns related to the coronavirus, or, if witnesses have been unavailable to take part.
Joyal said when it comes to jury selection, there are very clear guidelines about how people are selected.
He expects issues surrounding the pandemic will be taken into consideration, but likely won’t be a deciding factor about whether or not someone is excused from jury duty.