Have you heard these?
Who’s in a jury? Twelve people too dumb to get out of jury duty. What’s a jury? Twelve people chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.

There are almost as many bad jokes about juries as there are lawyer jokes. Every sitcom has had an episode in which one of the characters is called for jury duty, and there is always at least one punch line about what a hassle it is. Apparently, a lot of Nova Scotians feel the same way, and it’s become a real problem for our courts.

The topic made newspapers in February of 2013 when Supreme Court judge Glen McDougall ordered nine people who had failed to report for jury duty to appear before him to explain their absence. He accepted most of their explanations, but at least one of them was fined $50 for not showing up when she was summoned. McDougall was sending a message: if you are summoned for jury duty and you don’t show up, there will be consequences. He even went so far as to suggest that the media tweet his decision on Twitter so that the message would sink in with the public.

Apparently it did not work very well, because just three months later Justice Peter Rosinski fined several potential juror no-shows $200 each.

A few weeks later, the Chief Justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, Joseph Kennedy, was faced with ninety-five no-shows. That was over forty percent of potential jurors who had been called to report to the court and simply decided to give it a pass. Chief Justice Kennedy reminded the courtroom of the young people who stormed the beaches of Normandy to defeat Hitler and uphold democracy, and decried our current “flabby, sad generation” that will not even do something as simple as showing up for jury duty when we are called. He ordered the sheriff to round up the missing people – “drag them out of Tim Hortons” - and to tell them to bring their toothbrushes, implying that the no-shows might be facing a night in jail for contempt of court.

This still did not do the trick, because only a few days later, Justice McDougall again ordered the sheriff to collect a group of no-shows and bring them to court, saying that “nothing short of a grave marker” could excuse their absence.

It’s unfortunate that jury duty has come to be treated so trivially by so many of us, because it’s actually a very important democratic duty; in fact, it goes back to before democracy. The earliest jury trials date back to at least the thirteenth century, but they were a lot different then. Today, the court seeks out a group of neutral people with no prior knowledge of the events on trial to listen quietly to a set of arguments and decide what the facts are. In England during medieval times, instead of weeding out anyone who already knew about the events on trial, the court would choose people who did know about them.  These jury members would then investigate for themselves by talking with people who had firsthand knowledge of the events – what we would today call witnesses. Today, juries just listen to what lawyers have to say in the courtroom and decide amongst themselves what really happened.

What hasn’t changed is the importance of serving on a jury as a civic duty, one that is every bit as important in a democracy as voting or a free press. Jury duty is a way for ordinary citizens to participate in the judicial process instead of just handing over the courtroom to professional lawyers and judges. Today, juries are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. Section 11(f) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees everyone in Canada who is put on trial for a crime carrying a sentence of at least five years a trial by a jury of his or her peers. In 2002, the Nova Scotia legislature broadened the part of the population that can serve on a jury by making changes to the Juries Act.

In spite of the important place jury duty holds in our judicial process, it may be somewhat understandable why it’s seen as such a burden. For example, people who serve on a jury in Nova Scotia only receive $40 compensation per day, and that’s only if they’re actually chosen to serve on a jury; they receive nothing for just showing up to court to potentially be chosen for jury duty. Furthermore, although the law requires that employers hold a juror’s job for him or her, it doesn’t require that the employer continue to pay the juror for time served on the jury.

Nova Scotians are not alone in shirking their duties. Among provinces that actually track absenteeism – most of them don’t – we find that about one fifth of people summoned for jury duty never show up to court. Most provinces don’t pay much more than Nova Scotia does for serving on a jury. For many people, then, jury duty represents a hit to the pocketbook and an inconvenience. However, we might remind ourselves, as Chief Justice Kennedy did, that other people have been asked to sacrifice a lot more in the service of democracy. As Sir William Blackstone said nearly three hundred years ago, “let it be again remembered that delays and little inconveniences in the forms of justice are the price that all free nations must pay for their liberty in more substantial matters.”

For more detailed information on what to do if you are called for jury duty, please see the jury duty page on this website, and go to the Courts of Nova Scotia jury duty page at courts.ns.ca/general/jury.htm. In the meantime, here are a few things you should know about jury duty:

  • If you are chosen for potential jury duty, you will receive a Juror Summons that will tell you where and when to show up for court. Don’t ignore it.  Make sure you fill out and send back the Juror Information Form!
  • If you cannot serve on a jury due to financial hardship, illness, or for some other reason, don’t just fail to show up. You must fill out the Juror Information Form and the Application to be Excused/Deferred from Jury Duty and return these to the Jury Coordinator to explain why you think you should be excused.   Contact the Jury Coordinator if you have questions;
  • Certain people are automatically disqualified from jury duty. Some examples are:
    • Anyone who has ever gone to law school;
    • Non-citizens;
    • Someone who has prior knowledge or a personal interest in the matter to be tried;
    • Members of the Canadian Armed Forces who are on active service.
  • You must still fill out and return the Juror Information Form and the Application to be Excused/Deferred from Jury Duty even if you are on the list of people who are automatically disqualified from jury duty;
  • If you fail to return the forms or show up for jury duty you can be fined up to $1000.  If you do not show up when you are supposed to you may be arrested and taken before a judge.

By Colin Strapps, law student volunteer at LISNS, July 2013