Column: Support services critically needed for jurors

Cowichan Valley Citizen

Jury duty is a vital component to our judicial system  to be judged by one’s peers — but the extraordinary sacrifice made by average Canadians who are called to fulfill their civic duty is grossly overlooked.

The emotional toll of digesting graphic evidence, victim and witness testimony, and ultimately being asked to objectively arrive at a verdict, is an exceedingly onerous task to ask of ordinary citizens, who never made the choice to enter the criminal justice system.

As a member and vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, I’m able to propose topics for in-depth study by the committee. In June, I brought forward this issue for consideration, and my Justice Committee colleagues agreed that a study on counselling and other mental health supports for jurors is much-needed and long-overdue. As such, we have been conducting the first ever federal study on this issue for the past several weeks.

The way our system presently operates is that, come the end of a trial, jurors are thanked for their service, sent on their way, and left to seek out their own coping mechanisms for slipping back into their regular lives. After an extended absence from work and family, having been transported into a real-life episode of Criminal Minds, jurors often suffer symptoms of depression, anxiety, irritability, loss of appetite, sleep interruptions, relationship problems, and feelings of guilt or self-doubt.

The committee has heard from 20 witnesses thus far, and the resounding sentiment expressed over and over again has been that better support systems must be in place to lessen the impact felt by jurors, particularly for those serving on trials dealing with the most graphic and horrific crimes imaginable.

Some provinces and territories are getting it right. We have heard that Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Yukon have support programs in place. They differ from one government to the next, and it’s this regional discrepancy the committee is seeking to address, so that a juror in Saskatchewan has the same court-provided support mechanisms as someone serving on a trial in PEI. This means better pre-trial briefings, access to counselling services during and post-trial, and better compensation for their work.

A report will be produced and referred to the House of Commons in the New Year for the consideration of all Members of Parliament, but especially the Minister of Justice. I’m excited about the opportunity we have before us to correct the gaping hole in our current judicial system, to find the necessary supports to help jurors cope with the possible traumas many experience.

I am incredibly optimistic about the impact the resulting report from this study will have. It is all too rare that Members of Parliament from different political parties find a way to put aside their partisan positions to work collaboratively. But I am tremendously proud to say this study is an example of MPs from all parties at their best, working together to find thoughtful and informed solutions to this important, complex issue.

I look forward to updating you in 2018 on the progress of this study. In the end, I know we will be better for it.

In the meantime, I want to take this opportunity to wish you all a safe and happy holiday season, and all the very best for the New Year.

https://www.cowichanvalleycitizen.com/opinion/column-support-services-critically-needed-for-jurors/

Published in the Cowichan Valley Citizen, December 27, 2017