The look on their faces only told part of the story.
Scared, and nervous, 28 people slowly walked from the back of Brampton’s largest courtroom on Thursday to explain to a Superior Court judge why they ignored their jury duty summonses.
For many, it was like walking up the steps to the gallows. Had they known Justice Casey Hill’s reputation of being a no-nonsense judge, they would have perhaps been even more tense during their 60-foot walk to the podium.
One by one, Hill spoke with each person all of whom had been warned beforehand that they faced a possible charge of contempt and a fine if he wasn’t satisfied with their reasons.
“Honesty is essential,” Hill told them.
It was an extraordinary move by Hill. The judge had had enough. The no-shows were supposed to be among the 300 people on Panel 118 serving as the pool of potential jurors on the murder trial of Alvin Boyce of Brampton. None of them knew they could wind up on the jury in a lengthy homicide case.
The citizens’ absence from the panel forced a delay in jury selection, according to Hill.
Rather than issuing warrants or convicting 43 Peel residents in absentia for neglecting their civic duty, he asked that registered letters be sent on Jan. 28 ordering them to appear in his courtroom Thursday.
Six letters were returned because people had moved, including one person now living in the United Kingdom. In total, 28 people turned up.
Hill showed restraint and leniency. Instead of dishing out punishment, he treated it as a fact-finding exercise to determine how to prevent it from continuing.
“How are you today?” Hill asked an elderly woman wearing a black sweater over top a red blouse and clutching a piece of paper she had written with words explaining why she never appeared on Jan. 19.
“Terrified,” she answered. “Very nervous.”
“Well, we’ll see if we can do something about that,” Hill said as she passed the note to him explaining the stress she had been under at the time she received her jury notice.
Hill told the gathering their no-shows weren’t just an isolated matter. Based on data from the previous five months, between 11 and 21 per cent of prospective jurors have failed to show up for 42 different Brampton trials.
“. . . A systemic problem has emerged,” Hill said. “It’s important to recognize that jury service is a public duty and is not an invitation to attend or an option. It’s a court order with consequences for disobedience. Every person must attend without a reasonable excuse.”
Nine people still did not appear. According to Canada Post, the registered letters were delivered and signed for. Justice Casey Hill has asked for more information with an intention to ordering nine people to court at a later date for a hearing. A contempt conviction carries a fine of up to $1,000 and possible jail of up to 30 days.
Ironically, many of those in court on Thursday had excuses that likely would have got them off jury duty had they showed up as required and provided their reasons.
Several people said they were sick or had medical reasons for not attending, including a man with an “embarrassing hernia malfunction” and a woman who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks.
Others insisted they faxed doctors’ notes to the court, which for some reason never got filed.
One man was burying his mother in Romania. He faxed information to the court but never got a reply.
Others simply came clean. They simply forgot or misplaced the letter in the Christmas season.
In all, 81 people were excused for various reasons before the Jan. 19 panel date. Another 219 were expected to appear in court that day.
Instead, only 174 people showed. The court was forced to merge them with another panel, delaying jury selection.
“The consequences (no-shows) are significant,” Hill said. “The delinquency delayed Boyce’s constitutional right to a trial.”
Jury trials are a symbol of democratic institutions and of civilized societies, Hill said.
What the law says: A person who does not appear after receiving a jury summons could be convicted of contempt and receive a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 30 days in jail.
What usually happens: Nothing
What happened this time: Justice Casey Hill asked that registered letters be sent to 43 residents of Peel summoning them to his courtroom to explain why they didn’t turn up