OTTAWA — Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says she will look at possible changes to a law forbidding jurors from talking about closed-door deliberations — a secrecy provision that prevents stressed-out former jury members from discussing difficult trials with mental-health professionals.
Wilson-Raybould says she will pursue the matter — and other jury-related issues — with her provincial and territorial counterparts as part of the Liberal government's ongoing review of the criminal justice system.
She commits to finding ways to better assist jurors in a recent letter to fellow Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, chairman of the House of Commons justice committee.
In May, the committee's report on improving support for jurors recommended the government amend section 649 of the Criminal Code so that those who serve on juries can discuss deliberations with designated mental-health workers once a trial is over.
In her letter, Wilson-Raybould acknowledges the obstacles the section poses both for jurors and academic researchers who want to talk to people who have served on juries.
Providing support to jury members before, during and after their service is a crucial goal, she says.
"This is important for the well-being of individual jurors, but also for the criminal justice system in general — adequate supports can help ensure that juries are representative and competent, characteristics that are essential if a jury is to properly exercise its key role in the criminal justice system."
The Liberals introduced legislation in March that would revise selection procedures with the aim of ensuring the juries in Canadian courtrooms reflect the communities in which they serve.
The Commons committee recommended several additional steps, including encouragement from the justice minister to the provinces and territories to provide jurors with information packages, debriefing sessions, and psychological support and counselling programs.
Currently, such supports vary across the country, depending on the jurisdiction.
A former juror spoke to the committee about the difficulties he faced following a challenging criminal trial.
"Images would haunt me day after day, an unrelenting bombardment of horror. My daughter's red finger painting would hurtle me back to the scene of the crime and I would stare transfixed, seemingly out of space and time."
Section 649 was enacted in 1972 to help make the jury room a confidential forum — promoting frank debate among jurors, assuring the finality of verdicts and protecting jurors from reprisal, Wilson-Raybould notes in her letter.
While the section does not prohibit discussing one's emotions during jury deliberations or the evidence that was presented in court, it does bar disclosure of information such as opinions expressed, arguments made and votes cast, she adds.
The committee calls for a "more lenient" rule to allow a juror to speak about these matters with a mental-health practitioner, much like the Juries Act in the Australian state of Victoria.
The Supreme Court of Canada and an independent committee of senior justice officials have raised the notion of amending the section to allow academic research into the jury deliberations process, Wilson Raybould says. Under the current restrictions, researchers interested in the ethnicity and other characteristics of jurors must attend courtrooms in person to gather information for studies about jury representativeness.
In addition to examining the secrecy issue with the provinces and territories, Wilson-Raybould says the government will consult the National Judicial Institute about the possibility of funding to train judges about jurors' mental health needs.
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Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press