Opinion

Ontario's changes to jury duty are good, but more is needed

Ontario's changes to jury duty are good, but more is needed
By Star Editorial Board

The opportunity to be judged fairly by a jury of one’s peers is a foundational tenet of our criminal justice system.

But too often that standard is not truly met because of the way juries are selected.

It’s welcome, then, that Ontario is moving to turn that principle of law into more of a reality in courtrooms across the province by vastly expanding the pool of people who are called to jury duty.

The Ford government’s budget bill, making its way through the Ontario legislature now, changes the primary source list for creating juries from property assessment rolls to the province’s health card database. That will include tenants and others who don’t own property and make for a far more diverse group of potential jurors.

Juries don’t need to look exactly like the accused but they should be a fair representation of the diverse communities in which they live. And we’ve long known that using a property ownership database results in a group that is richer, older and whiter than society at large.

The problem with that was starkly illustrated through a Toronto Star/Ryerson School of Journalism investigation last year.

In an analysis of 52 trials in multi-cultural Toronto and Brampton, reporters found that 71 per cent of the jurors were white. That’s particularly troubling when 46 per cent of the accused in those trials were Black and just 7 per cent of the jurors were Black.

By expanding the jury pool, Ontario is finally taking an important step to address that inequity. But if the goal is creating truly representative juries, which it should be, this change takes the province only halfway.

By law, employers must give people time off work if they’re called for jury duty, but they don’t have to pay them.

Some do, but many don’t.

So while Ontario’s overall jury pool will now be more diverse, actually serving on a jury will still be an impossible ask for far too many people. It’s an awfully small group of people who can afford to go without being paid for any length of time.

That’s only going to get worse as employment patterns continue to change with more contract work and self-employment and fewer people working for the large companies that are more likely to pay an employee’s salary during jury duty.

And Ontario, which by law expects citizens to do their civic duty, lags behind other jurisdictions in making it financially possible to do so.

Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province that requires employers to pay employees their regular wages while serving on a jury. Every other provincial or territorial government directly provides some compensation.

Of those, Ontario is the only province that provides no compensation at all for the first 10 days of jury duty. Jurors then receive $40 a day for days 11 through 49, and $100 a day after that.

Those rates are substantially below what most other provinces and territories provide. Most also cover some expenses, such as transportation and childcare, which Ontario does not.

In the case of one Brampton murder trial, where jurors sat for 70 days, they were paid far below minimum wage for that vital public service.

For Ontario to make the most of its improved jury rolls it needs to address its lagging compensation. Otherwise too many people that a properly diverse jury should include will continue to be excused simply because they can’t afford to do their civic duty. And those on trial will continue to be sentenced by juries that don’t seem to represent them or the communities they live in.

By taking the first step, Attorney General Caroline Mulroney has shown that she understands the problem. She needs to take the next step to positively address it.

It’s long past time that the 12 men and women sitting in a jury box, deciding someone’s fate, more fairly reflected Ontario’s diversity.