Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-417. I want to thank the members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for their study on the bill and the hard work they did to advance discussions and debate on the issue of juror mental health.
I support the amendments made by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and I urge all hon. members to do the same. Before I address the amendments made to the bill, I would like to talk about the bill itself and about the purpose of section 649 of the Criminal Code and the way it compares to offences in other countries.
The underlying objective of this bill is no doubt a laudable one, as it proposes a Criminal Code amendment that seeks to help jurors who face mental health challenges following jury duty. It proposes to do so by amending section 649 of the Criminal Code, which has been identified as posing an impediment for jurors needing mental health support after the completion of a jury trial. Like other members of this House, I believe that it is important for jurors to get the support they need in the aftermath of their jury service.
Specifically, the amendment proposed in Bill C-417 would permit jurors to discuss jury deliberations with health care professionals after the trial in order to address health issues that have arisen as a result of their jury duties. It would do so by adding an exception to the offence of disclosure of jury proceedings under section 649 of the Criminal Code.
As has been mentioned by the sponsor and other members of this House, the proposal seeks to implement a unanimous recommendation of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights' May 2018 report entitled “Improving Support for Jurors in Canada”.
With few exceptions, section 649 prohibits jurors from disclosing any information relating to jury deliberations or other information not shared in open court. The prohibition in section 649 applies to matters intrinsic to the jury deliberation process, such as the opinions, thoughts, statements, arguments and votes of individual jurors. It also applies, for example, to the slightest comment between jurors while walking out of the courtroom or while exiting the courthouse.
The purpose of the prohibition is to promote free and frank debate in the jury room and allow for an independent and effective jury free from the pressures of public scrutiny or fear of reprisal. It also supports the finality of verdicts and public confidence in the administration of justice.
Jurors may discuss evidence or other information disclosed in the courtroom, since such information is publicly available. What this means, for example, is that there is currently no legal impediment if a juror wishes to seek mental health support in relation to a gruesome video or photograph presented as evidence in court.
Indeed, as was mentioned in earlier debates, many provinces and territories—Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Yukon—offer juror support programs that tackle the mental health consequences of this aspect of jury duty.
Section 649 targets out-of-court discussions about jury deliberations and makes it a summary conviction offence to disclose such information.
The offence applies to every juror and every person providing support services to a juror with a physical disability.
It may also interest members of the House to know that some provincial and territorial legislation, applying to both criminal and civil jury proceedings, establish an offence that seeks to address a similar issue as that in section 649. For example, Yukon’s Jury Act prohibits any person who was a member of the jury from disclosing or discussing in any manner the nature or content of jury discussions.
In testimony provided to the justice committee during its study on jurors, Ms. Tina Daenzer, who had been a juror for the Paul Bernardo trial in the 1990s, described that part of the trauma of serving on a jury came from what jurors were not allowed to discuss.
More recent, Mr. Mark Farrant told the justice committee during its study of Bill C-417 that after he had served on a jury in a murder trial, many mental health professionals were unwilling to take him on as a client at all because of perceived legal conflicts due to the jury secrecy rule, which I was describing. Even though jurors are able to talk about whatever becomes part of the court record, including horrific and traumatic evidence, jury secrecy still operates as a barrier to some jurors in accessing mental health care for their own trauma. Bill C-417 would change that, which makes this such an important bill.
Internationally, a similar rule prohibiting the disclosure of jury deliberations is found in the United Kingdom and in various states in Australia. The justice committee's report takes note of legislation in the Australian state of Victoria, which includes an exception that permits a former juror to disclose information related to deliberations to a registered medical practitioner or a registered psychologist while being treated in relation to issues arising out of their service.
In the United States, once a trial is over, jurors are generally free to discuss the events of the trial and jury deliberations, unless a specific court order bars them from doing so. What that means is that jurors in the United States can talk with nearly anyone about juror deliberations, including a talk show host on national television or across the Internet. This approach, which offers limited protection for juror privacy, is significantly different from the Canadian model.
I think we would all agree that Canadian citizens may be reluctant to serve on juries if it is contemplated that their deliberations would be made public or if they may be subjected to probing and intrusive questioning about discussions and opinions expressed during deliberations. It thus remains critical to ensure the privacy, safety and security of jurors who perform the invaluable civic duty of serving on a jury.
Against this backdrop, I would like to turn my attention to the substance of Bill C-417 and why, as I have already mentioned, the government supports the bill with the amendments that were adopted at committee. The amendments have added clarity to the proposed change to section 649 and they are consistent with what the bill seeks to achieve. One of the amendments was discussed earlier. It is about specifying who is a health care professional by clarifying that it must be a professional who is regulated or licensed in the province or territory, similar to what is found in the Australian example. The impact of this amendment is that it would provide for greater clarity that jurors could only disclose information to a member of a regulated health profession with governing rules of conduct and codes of ethics, including duties of confidentiality.
Such a change is consistent with ensuring that the integrity of the jury secrecy rule is maintained, notwithstanding the new exception to section 649 that is being proposed.
The other amendment is relatively minor, addressing a discrepancy in the language versions of the bill.
Finally, the justice committee agreed on an amendment to the bill to provide for a coming into force date of 90 days after royal assent, to give the provinces and territories time to prepare for the implementation of the change in the law. As the sponsor of the bill noted at committee, the purpose of the amendment is to give provinces and territories the time to get up to speed with the change.
The justice committee's amendments strengthen this bill, responding to the issues raised before the committee. As such, the government will be accepting the committee's recommendation to adopt this bill, as amended, at third reading.