With great citizenship comes great responsibility (or something like that…). When I became a Canadian citizen a few years back, little did I imagine I’d be called upon to perform my civic duty quite so soon. But there I was just a few weeks ago sitting in court, awaiting my fate. I wasn’t the one on trial, but it certainly felt like it! I’d been summoned to appear as part of a jury panel selection process. The official summons makes clear that just because you’re told to show up doesn’t mean you’ll be picked and with 150 potential jurors in the courtroom, the odds had to be good that I’d escape – surely?
When I walked into the courtroom, I was asked to report to the desk at the front to sign in, then take a seat, or more aptly a pew. With such a reverential atmosphere in the beautiful ornate building, it really felt like sitting in church. Without any fanfare, two prison guards escorted the defendant to sit at the front of the court. “He definitely looks like a criminal,” I thought and immediately took myself to task for pre-judging – not a good quality in a potential juror. When everyone was settled, the judge made her appearance and events finally got going.
Names were drawn at random by the clerk of the court until a group of 12 people was assembled at the front of the court next to the judge and legal teams. Each potential juror was then asked to step forward and declare any reasons why they couldn’t serve on the jury. Amongst the many and varied “exit strategies,” we had financial hardship, (which for people whose employer won’t pay them during the trial is a very valid concern), child care issues, exams, pre-booked vacations, and numerous medical complaints from high blood pressure to hearing problems.
If someone was willing and able to serve, they then had to pass two more tests. First they had to look at the defendant, and he at them. Then they were assessed by both legal teams who could accept or reject (“challenge” in legal speak) the potential juror. No reasons are given for these “challenges” and the judge told us beforehand not to take anything personally.
This painfully slow process dragged on and on, with everyone counting down as another jury member was selected. We finally reached the full complement of 12, but then –as the judge had earlier informed us– two alternates had to be chosen. At this point my number was finally up and I had no choice but to make “the long walk” to the front of the court. I was “certified fit” by both legal teams – one of those rare times in life when I really wanted to be rejected!
After another alternate was chosen, we and the jury were ushered to a meeting room down the hallway. The heavy, dark furniture seemed very appropriate given the sense of gloom and depression that hung over the newly formed jury. We were at least provided with a washroom, water and soft drinks and given information about parking arrangements.
At this point I was fully expecting to have to sit through the whole trial. After a very long wait and the odd false start, we finally lined up in the corridor in the order we’d been picked and made our way back into the court room – the jury on one side and the alternates on the other. Then the judge came out with the completely unexpected statement that the alternates were no longer needed and we were free to go, so I made my escape into the sunshine.
Although I was very happy not to stay (it would have been a tough trial), I do recognize that we’re lucky in Canada to have the legal system that we do and that juries play a vital role in ensuring a fair trial. If I’m called up to attend another panel selection, I’ll be there for sure, but I just hope it’s not too soon.
More information on jury panel selection in your province