Mr. Speaker, first off, I would like to acknowledge that I am speaking from the traditional lands of the Algonquin people. I also want to acknowledge the work of my friend from St. Albert—Edmonton and his persistence in bringing forward Bill S-206, an act to amend the Criminal Code (disclosure of information by jurors).
The amendment proposed by Bill S-206 would permit jurors to discuss jury deliberations with health care professionals following a trial in order to address the 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.
I am pleased to say that the government will be supporting this bill. Bill S-206 is nearly identical to former bills introduced in previous parliamentary sessions, notably Bill C-417, which the government also supported. Bill S-206 includes a change to the Criminal Code that has garnered unanimous support, and I believe it should once again receive the same treatment, as it is a worthy objective.
I want to thank Mark Farrant and the Canadian Juries Commission for their tireless advocacy on this bill, and on behalf of Canadians who have served on juries across Canada.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity this bill provides to consider the important civic duty of jurors, including the pivotal role they play in the criminal justice system. I would also like to speak about the purpose of section 649 of the Criminal Code and what effects the amendments proposed in Bill S-206 are expected to have.
Juries are critical in their contributions to the justice system in Canada and have an important role in upholding our Constitution. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to a jury trial for offences carrying a maximum penalty of imprisonment of five years or more. The charter also guarantees a right to a trial before an independent and impartial tribunal.
Under the Criminal Code, certain criminal offences, such as murder, provide for a presumption that the accused will be tried by a judge and jury. For other offences, such as sexual assault and robbery, an accused can elect to be tried by a judge alone or by jury and judge. In a trial involving a judge and jury, jurors act as the triers of fact and replace the judge in this role.
The right to a jury trial is not a constitutional one in the civil context. The right to demand a civil jury trial is a statutory right that is limited to certain circumstances found in provincial and territorial legislation. However, in some jurisdictions, such as Quebec, juries are not available at all for civil cases. Canada also has juries in the context of coroner's inquests, whose important role can involve making recommendations in relation to the death of an individual.
The Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Davey held that a jury “reflects the common sense, the values, and the conscience of the community.” The jury has also been described by the Supreme Court, in R. v. Sherratt, as an “excellent fact finder” and a “final bulwark against oppressive laws or their enforcement”, which increases societal trust in the justice system as well as public knowledge of the criminal justice system. Moreover, as the Supreme Court stated in R. v. Find, “Trial by jury is a cornerstone of Canadian criminal law. It offers the citizen the right to be tried by an impartial panel of peers and imposes on those peers the task of judging fairly and impartially.”
These statements and observations by our highest court inform us of the great value placed on juries in Canada and the individuals who make up a jury, with notable references to the significance of juries in the criminal justice system.
The provinces and territories are responsible for the administration of justice, and their legislatures enact laws relating to the establishment of juries for civil, criminal and other proceedings, such as coroner's inquests. Provincial and territorial legislation also provides the basis for identifying potential jurors from the community, determining who may meet the criteria to act as jurors and summing jurors to court, among other things.
With respect to matters within the federal jurisdiction, federal responsibility over criminal law includes the Criminal Code's procedural rules regulating jury trials and the jury selection process that takes place in the courtroom. This includes the requirement that 12 jurors be selected, in addition to one or two alternatives at the discretion of the judge.
The challenge for cause process and the trial judge's power to excuse or stand aside prospective jurors provide mechanisms for removing prospective jurors whose impartiality may be in question. The federal government also has a responsibility for enacting criminal offences and penalties, such as those set out in the Criminal Code.
The common law has long provided for a secrecy rule, which excludes the evidence of a juror who reveals statements or opinions made during jury deliberations. Section 649 of the Criminal Code is a codification of this rule. It was enacted in 1972 and provides for a summary conviction offence that criminalizes the disclosure of information obtained during jury deliberations that was not otherwise disclosed in open court. The offence applies to every juror and every person who provides technical, personal, interpretative or other support services to a juror with a physical disability. The offence is currently punishable by a maximum penalty of imprisonment of two years less a day and/or a fine not exceeding $5,000. There are no known or reported convictions pursuant to this offence.
There are existing exceptions under section 649 that permit disclosure of information relating to the proceedings of the jury. These are in respect of an investigation or prosecution of a charge of obstruction of justice in relation to a juror, under subsection 139(2) of the Criminal Code.
The common law jury secrecy rule and offence in section 649 serve the purposes of promoting free and frank debate among jurors, protecting them from harassment, maintaining public confidence in the administration of justice and helping preserve the constitutionally mandated integrity of the jury system. However, section 649 has been identified as a barrier to jurors seeking mental health support.
We heard in the course of testimony before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights during its study and in its report, “Improving Support for Jurors in Canada”, from May 2018, that jury duty for some individuals involved significant personal sacrifice, stresses and strains, with some former jurors experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health trauma. Former jurors have reportedly encountered resistance from mental health professionals in serving them because of section 649 of the Criminal Code. This is very concerning, as the individual jurors who make up a jury are invaluable to our justice system and the difficulties they encounter must be recognized and acknowledged.
The narrow exception being proposed in Bill S-206 is meant to make it easier and clearer for jurors to get mental health treatment for issues relating to their service so they are able to disclose information about what went on during jury deliberations that may have impacted them. For example, they would be permitted to disclose information beyond that which was disclosed in open court, such as graphic photos and disturbing testimony, and discuss with a health care professional other aspects of the trial and jury duty that may have affected them, such as the weight of the decision they had to make.
Finally, the bill includes a coming-into-force period of 90 days after the bill receives royal assent. This would allow the provinces and territories some time to effectively implement the change to section 649, given their primary responsibility over the administration of justice and jury trials, as well as juror supports generally.
It seems that this will be welcomed as an improvement for jurors involved in the criminal justice system, who, as previously described, may face the need for mental health support following a trial. This help should be accessible. I hope that all members of the House will join us in supporting Bill S-206.