POLITICS

Fifteen people in Nova Scotia who skipped jury duty to appear before judge

02/13/2013 03:29 EST | Updated 04/15/2013 05:12 EDT
HALIFAX - Fifteen people have been ordered to appear Thursday before a Supreme Court judge in Halifax after they ignored summonses requiring them to take part in a jury selection process prior to a high-profile murder trial.

Judge Glen McDougall took the unusual step of asking sheriffs to track down the absentees after 110 of the 280 people told to show up last September failed to do so.

In Nova Scotia, those caught skipping the jury selection process face a $1,000 fine or possible jail time — though the maximum penalties are rarely imposed.

"The odds of (the judge) resorting to that would be pretty slim," said Wayne Corcoran, jury co-ordinator for the Halifax region.

Still, being hauled before a judge can be intimidating, said Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

"Sometimes, the point of this is not to punish someone formally, but to drag them in and have them account for themselves in front of a court of law," he said.

"It's somewhat of a punishment, like being called in front of the principal."

In April 2011, a Superior Court judge in Ontario called the non-attendance of prospective jurors "a systemic problem" after 43 people failed to show up for jury selection at a Brampton murder trial.

The judge later found that between 11 and 21 per cent of prospective jurors failed to show at 42 different trials during a four-month period.

Young said prospective jurors can be forgiven for feeling reluctant about coming forward.

Jurors in Nova Scotia are paid $40 a day, their parking fees are covered and they get 20 cents per kilometre to pay for fuel.

"The reality is that you don't know when you walk in whether you're going to be on a three-day matter or a three-month matter," Young said. "A lot of people don't want to make that commitment."

However, it's difficult to determine the extent of the problem because most provinces, including Nova Scotia, do not keep a running tally on potential jurors who fail to perform their civic duty.

Corcoran, who is also a justice of the peace in Halifax, said it's unusual for a judge to track down those who ignore jury duty summonses, but it has happened before.

In the past 10 years, Nova Scotia judges in five smaller communities have sent sheriffs to round up potential jurors — a process than can usually be accomplished in short order in a small town.

"Everybody knows everybody," said Corcoran. "The judge usually sends the sheriffs out to get them the same day."

In the Halifax trial heard by McDougall last year, 14 jurors were eventually picked from the pool to hear the case of Chaze Lamar Thompson, who was later convicted of murdering cab driver Sergei Kostin in January 2009.

Corcoran said he had sent out about 600 letters to potential jurors, knowing that about 35 per cent would be excused.

Those over 70 years of age have the option of withdrawing, as do people with medical issues. As well, people whose employers won't pay them during the trial can be excused for financial hardship. And those with travel plans can have their commitment deferred to a later date.