Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise to speak to Bill S-206, an act to amend the Criminal Code on disclosure of information by jurors.
Bill S-206 proposes an amendment that seeks to help jurors who face mental health challenges flowing from fulfilling their civic duty and after completion of a jury trial. It proposes to do so by adding an exception to the offence of disclosure of jury proceedings under section 649 of the Criminal Code.
The substance of this legislation is short and straightforward and I believe is targeting an important issue deserving of our attention. Indeed, when we situate the bill in the present context of the ongoing COVID‑19 pandemic, we can all understand the importance of supporting the well-being and mental health of Canadians, and particularly those who participate in the justice system.
We know the pandemic has affected the mental health of Canadians. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, almost half of all Canadians have reported that their mental health has worsened since the beginning of the pandemic. A Statistics Canada survey on COVID‑19 and mental health in September 2021 indicated that one in four Canadians, or 25%, age 18 and older screened positive for symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder in the spring of 2021, up from one in five, or 21%, in the fall of 2020.
A more recent study in January 2022, from the Angus Reid Institute, found that the population is largely fatigued, frustrated and anxious, with one in three Canadians, or 36%, stating they are struggling with their mental health. According to this study, this represents an increase from the one-quarter who responded in November 2021, prior to omicron becoming the dominant COVID‑19 variant in Canada.
Canadians across the country who are experiencing mental health difficulties are the very same population called upon for jury duty by way of provincial and territorial legislative processes governing the criteria with respect to who may serve and be summoned as a juror. I am very pleased that the government is committed to supporting Canadians and their mental health through the COVID‑19 pandemic and beyond, such as through its record of investing millions into mental health and distress centres.
Thanks to the previous work undertaken by the members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to study counselling and mental health supports for jurors, we have a better understanding of the experience of Canadians who serve on juries and the potentially long-lasting impacts of such service. The committee's May 2018 report entitled “Improving Support for Jurors in Canada” documented that many former jurors described their jury duty experience as positive. However, the report also includes testimony from jurors who served on difficult and unfortunately disturbing criminal cases ended up encountering much mental health distress and suffering, and in some instances even reported post-traumatic stress disorder following their service. It is conceivable that jury duty during any pandemic could give rise to additional stresses and strains on an individual, for example, concerns over their safety and physical-distancing requirements being respected at all times.
I believe that if serving on a jury creates a need for mental health supports, then there should not be barriers for those who must access them. Bill S-206 proposes to amend section 649 of the Criminal Code by adding a narrow exception to the offence prohibiting jurors from disclosing information otherwise disclosed in open court to enable them to share this information in the course of receiving mental health treatment from a health care professional.
While the purpose of section 649 of the Criminal Code is to protect the integrity of the jury deliberation process, the offence has been identified as posing a barrier for jurors in accessing mental health supports by former jurors and in the report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. The amendment proposed in Bill S-206 would address recommendation 4 of the report of the standing committee, which proposes that there may be a more lenient secrecy rule for jury deliberations. The committee's recommendations were unanimously supported.
I certainly support the recommendation and I support this bill. For instance, former Bill C-417 in 2019 unanimously passed in the House of Commons following the adoption of amendments by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
I call on all members to support Bill S-206 because it would allow former jurors to be freer in expressing their thoughts and feelings to a health care professional on matters that may have deeply disturbed or upset them or caused significant stress during their service as a juror.
It is a remarkable aspect of our justice system that jurors across the country and in countless courtrooms meet the challenges of jury duty, and so it only makes sense that they would be able to receive the support they need to return to their lives afterward. I am pleased that the government expressed its support for former Bill C-417 and is now in support of Bill S-206. The government has introduced, and Parliament has enacted, a number of changes to improve the jury regime in the Criminal Code.
For example, the Government of Canada introduced legislation that was passed by Parliament in 2019, former Bill C-75, which included several Criminal Code amendments to improve the in court jury selection process. These amendments abolished peremptory challenges, which have been linked to discriminatory application to exclude potential jurors from jury duty; simplified and strengthened the challenge for cause process; modernized the grounds for such challenges; and clarified the power of judges to stand aside jurors to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice.
More recently, on February 8, 2022, the government introduced Senate legislation to help address the challenges faced by criminal courts caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bill S-4, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Identification of Criminals Act and to make related amendments to other Acts relating to the COVID-19 response and other measures, includes proposed amendments that would, among other things, increase the use of technology in the jury selection process, including allowing prospective jurors to participate by video conference where the court considers it appropriate and with the consent of the prosecutor and the accused.
The pandemic and the resulting public health guidelines for physical distancing have made it especially challenging for courts to conduct jury selection proceedings, as these proceedings can sometimes involve several hundreds of people being physically present in the same location at the same time.
The amendments proposed in Bill S-4 would help provide courts with greater flexibility in how jury selection processes are held, and it may serve to be a useful tool in accommodating prospective jurors who have been summoned to participate in the selection process.
Our government is proud to support this bill, as it recognizes the vital role and dedicated service of jurors in the Canadian justice system. As we bring the justice system into the 21st century, we will work to ensure jurors can be better supported in their roles in addition to facilitating the sharing of best practices between jurisdictions.
I want to take a moment to commend my colleagues on the justice and human rights committee for working collaboratively to study and pass this important bill. It is an example of the progress we can achieve when we work together, across party lines, to support all Canadians.