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Federal committee releases guidance on jury trial reboot

Friday, July 03, 2020 @ 4:24 PM | By Terry Davidson

A action committee of justice officials has released guidance on resuming criminal jury trials that includes considering the use of conference centres for jury selection and rearranging where jurors sit in a courtroom.

On July 2, the Action Committee on Court Operations in Response to COVID-19, released “approved national-level guidance documents on all phases of the jury trial process,” including the summons and selection, cleaning and sanitation, in-trial processes and the sequestering, deliberation and release of the jury.

Since mid-March, jury trials across Canada have been shelved due to the spread of COVID-19. Ever since, there have been questions as to how jury trials would resume in the new reality of social distancing.

In a news release, it is pointed out that the committee feels “it is critical that all those who come to Canada’s courts have confidence that appropriate measures are being taken to protect their health and safety.”

“The jury-related guidance documents released today were developed with input from senior federal and provincial officials, and with public health and occupational health and safety experts with this key objective in mind. This guidance will inform the planning and concerted efforts of chief justices, judges, and courts administrators across the country to restore in-courthouse operations.”

In the guide’s section on jury selection, stakeholders are asked to consider whether any elements of in-person process could be replaced by “electronic alternatives,” or if conference centres, sports complexes or large community centres can be used so prospective jurors spread out.  

As for in-trial proceedings, they look at having jurors occupy the gallery while the public, media and family take in the hearing remotely. Like they did for jury selection, the committee also considers using large venues if a courtroom proves to be inadequate for social distancing.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti, a co-chair of the committee, said there was collaboration with various stakeholders, including those involved with health and safety.

“Judges and courts administrators alike are grappling with this difficult issue and searching for resolutions that will allow for this fundamental aspect of criminal justice to go forward in ways that are grounded in current public health advice,” said Lametti.

Canada’s Chief Justice Richard Wagner, the other co-chair, pointed to the “acute” impact the health crisis has had on jury trials.

“The impact of the pandemic is unprecedented, and the challenge is particularly acute in the context of criminal jury trials,” he said. “We have a duty to ensure that all courts can continue to deliver justice to Canadians. Today’s guidance is a step in the right direction.”

Links to the guidance documents can be found in the news release.

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