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Getting the call: summoned for jury duty

Some people will do anything to get out of the office. Lisa Guenther chose a chance to learn about the courts

This spring, I picked up some mail that had been sent to my old address. To my surprise and disdain, I’d received a juror summons from Sask Justice.

How it works

In many ways, jury selection in rural Saskatchewan is quite different from what we see in the movies or in American news stories.

However, because the trials are held at the Court of Queen’s Bench (which only handles indictable, or more serious charges), there were a few nice touches. For example, the judges, lawyers and court staff wore black robes. The courthouse in Battleford is old, and grand, with plenty of dark oak. The Meadow Lake courthouse is much newer, but also beautiful, with plenty of natural light.

If you’re called for jury selection in rural Saskatchewan, I think you can expect to attend a couple of jury selections. They tend to hold a jury panel for 10 weeks or so, and the jury panel will attend all the jury selections scheduled for that time. But you might not end up attending any. An acquaintance was called for jury service, but the trial was cancelled before the jury selection began.

When you first walk into the courthouse, you’ll sign some papers and the court staff will hand you a card that has your number.

Inside the courtroom, a court clerk draws 20 numbers. Those jurors line up (and they’re very particular about everyone lining up in the order their numbers were called). Both the defence and the Crown can strike a certain number of potential jurors without giving a reason. The judge might also excuse jurors for various reasons.

The court clerk will keep drawing numbers until they’ve selected 12 jurors, plus two alternates. Once the jury is picked, the trial begins. The alternate jurors will likely be allowed to go home that first day, unless another juror is excused.

In Battleford, it took a good hour to go through all the people who wanted to be excused from jury service. Individual jurors aren’t questioned about their abilities or beliefs. Instead, the judge asked anyone with hearing issues to step forward before they started drawing numbers.

Those people would line up to talk to the judge. The judge asked each of those people about how serious the hearing impairments were. He went through the same process for people with other health issues, for people who knew anyone involved in the trial, for people who wanted to be excused for any other reason, etc…

The judge in Meadow Lake had a more efficient process. He only started asking people if they wanted to be excused once their numbers were drawn. That meant sorting through way fewer people who wanted to be excused.

I heard all kinds of creative suggestions from friends and families on things to tell the judge. However, many of them were not the kinds of things I’d want to declare in front of 100 or so people. The judges often asked questions about people’s reasons for wanting to be excused, so personally I wouldn’t try lying, either.

The jury’s role

The jury has a very clear role in criminal trials. Jury members must decide what the facts are in the case, and whether the Crown has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt for each charge. That means each juror must be certain that the accused is guilty. Or the jury must agree that it’s not sure, and decide not guilty. The jury can agree that the accused is guilty of some charges, and not of others (unless some of the charges are closely connected), or guilty of everything, or not guilty of anything. The jury needs to reach consensus to render a verdict.

There are also things the jury shouldn’t consider, such as possible sentencing (that’s up to the judge), prior charges or convictions, and anything they might have heard in the media or elsewhere outside the courtroom.

The jury isn’t necessarily sequestered for the duration of the trial. But we were told not to use the front entrance of the courthouse (I assume they didn’t want us bumping into witnesses, the accused, or anyone else with a dog in the fight). We had our own conference room where we could discuss the evidence and deliberate.

Once the Crown and the defence had finished presenting evidence, we were sequestered as we made our deliberations. In practical terms, that means jurors can’t just wander off on their own for a smoke break or a walk. If deliberations go on long enough, it also means staying overnight in a hotel, rather than going home.

As a juror, you must remember that what happens in the jury room stays in the jury room. What I mean is that Canadian jurors are never allowed to talk about deliberations with other people, even once the trial is finished.

I have no idea how long deliberations usually take. The jury might have questions about the evidence or need to hear transcripts of witness testimony read back to them. That means going back into the courtroom, so the judge, lawyers, and accused can hear the question as well.

Eventually, the jury reaches a consensus on the charges and writes down the verdict. Everyone goes back into the court. The judge reads the verdict, and then asks the jury foreperson to tell the court the verdict on each charge. Once the jury has delivered its verdict, everyone on the jury is free to go.

At some point during the first jury selection, it occurred to me that it would be way better to be on the jury than to be a victim or the accused. Those were the people who deserved a fair, impartial jury, I told myself. So I stopped whinging so much.

In the end, I did find jury service interesting. It was good to learn a bit more about how our legal system works, especially in northern, rural Saskatchewan.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.



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