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Is it a Crime to Avoid Jury Duty?

Avoiding Jury Duty- The Luka Magnotta Murder Trial

As a defence lawyer, I occasionally receive a frantic phone call from a person who has received a summons for jury duty. Usually the caller wants to find out if they have to attend, and if there is a way to avoid jury duty. As jury selection continues in the Luka Magnotta trial, the general principles that relate to jury selection and jury duty are worth revisiting.

It is one’s civic duty to respond to a summons for jury duty and to participate as a juror in the trial process. Selection is random, so one may never be placed in the situation of being called for jury duty. However, if you are summoned for jury duty, it is not only your civic duty but it is also your legal duty to show up at the time and place directed. If this is impossible then you must provide the sheriff’s office with a significant excuse for your failure to attend – Sickness or other transitory obstacles will only delay the inevitable – You will be placed on a future panel.

Defence and Prosecution each have a number of “peremptory” challenges. These challenges allow either side to exclude a potential juror without expressing or identifying the cause. Each side can “challenge” for cause any juror on the basis of a lack of impartiality, but such challenges have to be substantiated- i.e. The victim was alleged to be sexually assaulted and the prospective juror is a counselor who deals with victims of sexual assault.

The Court has a significant discretion to exclude any member of the public from jury duty if sitting on the jury would be oppressive, whether psychologically, physically or economically. The sole proprietor, the single mother who is responsible for daycare of her children, and the person who would find it too physically demanding to sit throughout the trial process, all can be released by the Court, if the Court is of the view that participation in the trial would work too great a hardship on the person.

In the Luka Magnotta trial, many prospective jurors will seek to be released by the Court on the basis that the subject matter is such (brutal sexual violence) that they would be unable to reach an impartial verdict, or that the length of the trial will create hardship upon them. The Court will exercise its discretion accordingly. The Court seeks jurors who can view the evidence dispassionately and reach a fair and impartial verdict. None of the parties participating in the process- Crown, Defence, or the Judge- seek hostage jurors who are only participating in the process because they ran out of excuses.

Over the course of my career I have heard every excuse to be released from jury duty- from an admission of racism to a doctor’s appointment months into the future. The Court must control its processes. The jury is an essential part of the trial process. The juror who seeks to avoid jury duty must either offer a reasonable explanation as to why participation in the process would be oppressive, or explain why they would be biased in favour of or against the defendant.

It is a crime to fail to respond to a jury notice or provide misleading information in response. According to section 38(3) of the Juries Act (Ontario), the maximum punishment is a $5,000.00 fine and/or 6 months imprisonment.

11 Sep 2014

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