I was summoned to attend jury selection duty in the fall of 2015. I was a dutiful citizen, and put my regular weekday schedule on hold to fulfill my duty. But what could I really expect about this whole jury selection duty in Toronto in 2015? I had visions of sitting around a courtroom for days on end, with nothing available to me other than newspapers and magazines. The information sheet provided by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General was decent in providing some answers about the process, but wasn’t very helpful in some of the more practical questions or information about the process that was specific to the Toronto district court house.
Based on my experience, this is what you might expect during jury selection duty in the Toronto court district (things may be different in other court districts around the province):
- The 361 University Ave court house is located between the St. Patrick and Osgoode subway stations, so it was really easy for me to take transit there. If I were to drive, I likely would have tried to find a spot in the Green P parking underneath Nathan Phillips Square just to the east of the courthouse. In the Toronto court district, you do not get any transportation or parking fees reimbursed.
- You must enter through the front doors facing University Ave. There is security screening much like at the airport: bag x-ray scanners, metal detectors, and police security guards. You don’t have to remove shoes or take laptops out or avoid bringing in liquids though.
- Your first (and most) days, you’ll have to check in at the Jury Lounge, which is straight down the hallway past a set of doors and past the escalator banks. My first day, there was a looong lineup, but then one of the court staff came out to call out certain panel numbers (located on your summons). It turns out that we potential jury members are split up into panels of 50, and the check-in desk had several clerks each checking in a different panel number.
- There is available free wifi in the jury lounge rooms, the password is displayed in the main jury lounge room.
- The main lounge has a mix of rows of chairs, tables and chairs, and study carrels along the side walls. These are handy if you are bringing a laptop to do work, and there are outlet plugs along the wall.
- There are also smaller jury lounge rooms on other levels of the building, but you only go to those room when directed by court staff.
- From inside the lounge there is a small women’s and men’s bathroom, and counter access to the tiny cafe. If you want to leave the lounge room to go to another bathroom or the bigger basement cafeteria to grab coffee/snack, you’ll have to sign out with the clerk. (which totally made me feel like I was back in elementary school)
- The courthouse is located less than a 10 min walk away from the Eaton Centre, and there are also various cafes and restaurants in the area that provide different better options to get lunch from than the basement cafeteria.
- On the first day, you are to be there at 8:30 so they can show you an introduction/hype video to let you know how important your role as a potential juror is. Then the court clerk continues to give specific information about the courthouse rules, etiquette, and do’s and don’ts.
- The standard lunch break at the courthouse on 361 University Ave is 1pm to 2pm. If you are in a court session, the start of the lunch break will be at the judge’s discretion, but it didn’t seem to vary much from these hours. So make sure you have a big breakfast or bring snacks so you’re not totally starving before lunch time.
- There will be lots of waiting. And shuffling from room to room. So bring different forms of distractions, and make sure that your belongings are easily portable.
- If your panel is called in with several other panels into a trial to be selected from, there is a process to randomize the people and then break the groups down into smaller groups. (kind of like shuffling a deck of 4 suits and then making piles of 8 cards) They do this so not the entire population of the panels have to sit through the questionning and selection process. Later subgroups are often given permission to leave the courthouse with a specific time to return. All of this is to say you don’t necessarily have to stay at the court from 9am to 5pm each day. I had several 2 hour breaks, and often was dismissed for the day earlier than 5pm.
- When you’re in a jury lounge, you can use a computer, connect to the internet, use the phone, chat, eat, and drink. But if you’re in court, you can do none of these things.
Being called into trial
I ended up being a potential juror in two trials during my week on selection duty. Both of the trials needed large pools of potential jury members, the first using all 5 panels, and the second using 3 panels. If I remember correctly, the process went something like this:
- the jury selection panels are brought into the courtroom in the general seating area
- the defendant(s) are brought into the dock
- the judge is announced, and s/he gives an briefing on the process
- the registrar reads out the charges against the defendant(s)
- the registrar also lists potential police officers who may testify. Jury members are asked to self-identify if they may be prejudiced in the case based on their relationship to any of the defendants or the named police officers
- the jury panels are then grouped into smaller groups of 30. Each jury member has a juror number, and these jury numbers are printed on small slips of paper that are put into this wooden tumbler box, not unlike a bingo ball mixer. The registrar mixes up the slips of paper, and then takes out one paper slip and announces the juror number and panel number. The juror matching that number goes to the court staff who verifies their number, and then gets a subgroup letter (e.g A) and number (the order you were called) on a sticky note. This goes on until the subgroup has 30 people. The subgroup is taken out of the courtroom to a jury lounge where they wait until the juror questioning. Then the registrar continues for the next subgroup (e.g. B) of 30 people.
- Subgroups get to hang out in the jury lounge or are actually dismissed until a later time/date depending on where they got placed. When your subgroup is up for the individual questioning, you are brought to one of those deliberation rooms close to the court room.
- Then you are called to wait in small groups of 5 just outside the court door, and finally you are called individually into the court room, into the witness box next to the judge, and you state your juror number and occupation into the microphone.
- The judge asks if there are any extenuating circumstances that you believe may prevent you from serving as a juror. And while many people joke about saying very provocative things to try and get immediately ruled out as a juror, it is nerve-wracking even just saying the simple statement of your juror number and occupation. (My ears started to burn.) When you are in an official court room, next to the judge, in front of all the official court staff, lawyers and defendants, with a microphone in your face that will record what you say for the public record, there is a huge amount of gravity to the situation that is just so out of the ordinary. People’s lives really are at stake.
- Assuming you don’t get recused from surving, you then need to swear an oath to tell the truth.
- The defense lawyer asked you a question about whether you hold any prejudices against the race, creed, or religion of the accused. (I said no.)
- The registrar asks the already-selected jury members whether they accept or challenge the juror to be selected. (They accepted.)
- Assuming they accepted, the registrar next asks the Crown lawyers whether they accept or decline. (The Crown challenged me in the first trial, and accepted in the second)
- If accepted, the registrar then asks the defence lawyers of each defendant whether they accept or decline. (I didn’t get to the defense in the first trial, and I was challenged by the 2nd defense lawyer in the second)
- As soon as one of the parties challenges, you are then excused from the trial immediately and escorted out the back of the courtroom. I’ve realized that they set up the process very carefully so the potential jurors to come don’t have any indication until they step into the courtroom who has been selected so far. You go down to the main jury lounge and get instructions about whether you can leave or must stay.
- When you are finally excused and dismissed from selection duty, you are then exempt from being summoned again for 3 years.
I was relieved to not be selected to serve on the jury and further upend my work and life schedule for the 4 to 6 weeks estimated for those two specific trials (both were criminal cases with multiple defendants and multiple charges). But still…I couldn’t help but have the initial gut reaction of disappointment, “What? Why not me? Don’t you think I’m smart enough, unbiased enough, *good* enough to be on the jury?” Crazy, right?
And yet, I know that should I ever find myself involved in a criminal case, I would want the smartest, most competent people on the jury to make a sound and reasonable decision. I have to hope that the majority of such people would accept their duty to report for selection duty, and if selected, do their best to render a fair judgement. I would hate for the jury to be made up of people who just couldn’t find a good enough excuse to not be selected.