Thank you very much.
Good afternoon, members, and good afternoon, Chair.
On behalf of the Province of Ontario and the assistant deputy attorney general of court services division, Ms. Sheila Bristo, I thank you for inviting me today to this important discussion about supports for jurors.
My name is Julia Bielecka, and as the chair mentioned, I am the manager of the operational support branch in the court services division of Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General. My area is responsible for providing policy guidance and support to the jury process in the province.
In the time allotted to us today I will provide a high-level overview of the jury process in Ontario and the types of supports that are currently in place for jurors, including information about Ontario's juror support program, through which we provide counselling support for jurors.
We believe that serving as a juror is an important public service. Juries are drawn from a broad cross-section of society, and because of that, they can act as the conscience of the community. Those who participate often feel a heightened sense of community involvement because they have done their part to make sure justice has been served.
What does jury service look like in Ontario right now? Each year approximately 500,000 questionnaires are mailed out across the province to prospective jurors, who are selected randomly from the most recent municipal voters lists. For people living in a first nation community, other lists, such as band lists, are used. The juror questionnaire is used to determine whether a questionnaire recipient is eligible for jury duty. The questions in the questionnaire are based on eligibility requirements in Ontario's Juries Act.
Upon completing and returning a juror questionnaire, if an individual is eligible for jury duty, he or she is placed on a jury roll. The following year the individual may be randomly chosen from the roll to receive a “summons to juror” notice, which tells them that they must attend court on a specific date to be considered further for serving on the jury. They may also be chosen to serve as jurors at a coroner's inquest.
If an individual is selected to sit on a jury for a trial or inquest, they will be advised of the estimated length as part of the selection process. Some jurors may be required for several days and others for several weeks. There's no set time limit. Informing the juror of the estimated length as part of the selection process helps them gain an understanding as to how long they may need to be away from family and work.
In Ontario we provide a number of supports to jurors. First, to help potential jurors understand the jury process, Ontario created a jury duty video. It is called Jury Duty and You. Jurors can view the video when attending court for their summons or they can view the video online on our website or on YouTube.
We also currently provide financial support to jurors in certain circumstances. A juror may be paid for daily travel expenses, accommodation, or when serving on a trial for more than 10 days. There is currently no allowance for child or elder care. The ministry is carefully considering how best to address this issue, as we understand that this may be a hardship for some jurors. The payment of jurors is made in accordance with the requirements of Ontario's Juries Act and regulation 4 of the Administration of Justice Act.
If a potential juror needs accommodation for a disability, they are encouraged to contact the court office as soon as they receive their summons. Every effort is made to provide necessary accommodations for people with disabilities to participate fully in the jury process. For example, a judge may allow an individual to use technical, personal, interpretive, or other support services to enable that person to serve on the jury. If a juror is receiving employment insurance benefits, they can attend jury duty and continue to receive their benefits.
While jury duty is an important civic responsibility and can be rewarding, it can often be very difficult and stressful for jurors. The evidence in the testimony some jurors hear can be graphic. It can deal with very traumatic and violent crimes. In some cases, individuals have to take significant time away from their jobs, their families, and their lives. Talking to a qualified counsellor can help jurors after a trial or inquest.
The juror support program, which Ontario established in partnership with Morneau Shepell in January 2017, is available for Ontario's jurors at the conclusion of a trial or inquest. Jurors are able to receive up to eight one-hour counselling sessions. A juror can speak with a counsellor toll free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Jurors can receive this counselling in any manner they choose—in person, over the phone, by email, or by video conference, in English or French. They also receive disability accommodation when requested. There are no out-of-pocket expenses for jurors, and the program is completely confidential.
Supporting jurors to perform their civic duty and making counselling more easily accessible for those who need it are very important to the ministry and the province. Since the launch of our program in January 2017, 24 jurors have contacted Morneau Shepell for counselling.
Ontario recognizes that the jury process may be challenging and stressful for some individuals. If a prospective juror has questions or if they require assistance in completing the jury questionnaire, they're able to contact ministry staff from our provincial jury centre from Monday to Friday. Once they're summoned, they can contact the courthouse to which they have been summoned before their court date. If an individual has concerns or difficulties once they arrive at the courthouse, they can speak to one of our court services officers or a jury clerk for assistance at any point in time.
A juror can also make a request to the presiding judicial official to be excused from further participation in a trial or inquest if they feel that they cannot continue on in the process. At that point, the judge or coroner will determine whether to grant that juror's request.
Beyond the supports outlined above, a judicial officer may grant additional supports or compensation at their discretion.
We do our best to ensure that concerns raised receive a respectful and effective response.
I want to take this opportunity to reaffirm Ontario's commitment to ensuring a positive experience for jurors who serve on a trial or inquest.
On behalf of the ministry, thank you very much, and I also thank all those who participate in the jury process each year in Ontario. We are always open to considering feedback on how to improve the jury process in Ontario.
I look forward to answering any questions you may have today, and we look forward to receiving the recommendations of this committee in the future.