It could be years before jurors in Canada get the proper support they need for deliberating on gruesome, horrifying and potentially traumatic evidence in order to fulfil their civic duty – if such support ever materializes at all.
A bill from St. Albert-Edmonton MP Michael Cooper to improve mental health supports for such jurors died in the Senate last week after the House and Senate rose for the summer. The bill cleared a hurdle in February when second reading passed unanimously – a rare feat for an opposition member's bill – and again in April when third reading passed, but it then languished for months in the Senate without being debated.
While evidence presented publicly at trial can be discussed by jurors, a jury secrecy rule makes it a Criminal Code offence for jurors to ever discuss the jury deliberation process itself or information not shared in open court. There is a place for those rules – after all, jurors may be reluctant to debate evidence fully if they fear their comments can be made public – but Cooper's bill sought to make an exception for former jurors to speak to mental health professionals.
From the start, the timing of this bill was tight. Cooper introduced it in late October; it went to the Senate at the end of April, leaving just two months for it to pass through a level of government that has been bogged down by the controversial Bill C-48 (to ban oil tankers from part of the British Columbia coast) and C-69 (an overhaul of Canada's environmental impact assessment process for major projects).
Despite the amount of time put into those two bills, senators still found time last week to pass several other bills before they rose. Cooper's juror support bill was one of several private member's bills the Senate simply did not get around to, to the detriment of jurors Canada-wide.
It's unfortunate this bill failed to pass, given the forceful support it received in the House. In April, Parkdale-High Park MP Arif Virani, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General and to the Minister of Democratic Institutions, called the bill's objective "laudable"; Sherbrooke MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault, speaking on behalf of the NDP caucus, called it a "truly common-sense measure." Many who spoke in favour of it expressed the hope the Senate would pass it quickly.
This legislation should have been a rubber-stamp amendment to the Criminal Code. A good number of Canadians will sit on a jury at some point in their lives; many of them will be exposed to evidence of terrible crimes and then tasked with discussing and deliberating on that evidence in great detail.
Once the dust settles from the upcoming federal election, this bill should be reintroduced. As our understanding and awareness of mental health broadens, so must our legislation governing how people can access mental health services.