A Nova Scotia judge took the unusual step of ordering nine people to appear before the court Thursday to explain why they failed to show up for jury selection – a process the judge described as a privilege and a civic duty.
In the end, provincial Supreme Court judge Mr. Justice Glen McDougall accepted most of the excuses he heard, and let others off because they probably could not afford a fine. But the judge told Kathy Veniot, a hairdresser, she would be penalized because he did not accept her excuse regarding confusion over court instructions. He fined her $50.
Although the fine was small, it was clear the judge wanted to get the message out that skipping jury duty is a big mistake. Court officials had earlier alerted the media to the proceedings, and Judge McDougall encouraged reporters to use Twitter to relay information about the hearing to the public.
“A message has to be sent for specific and general deterrence … that summonses are not to be ignored,” Judge McDougall said. “Everybody should get the message of how important jury duty is. … By not showing up, you jeopardized the accused’s right to a fair trial.”
Judge McDougall decided to make a very public display of the court’s dim view of delinquent potential jurors after almost half of the 280 people summoned to appear for jury selection in a murder trial in early September failed to show.
The judge ordered the sheriff for the Halifax region to round up the absentees and bring them before the court. Some couldn’t be found, and others offered written excuses that the judge accepted. The remaining nine – five men and four women – were each brought before Judge McDougall and asked to explain themselves.
“It’s not simply a duty, it’s a privilege,” Judge McDougall told them “By not showing up, you deny yourself the opportunity to participate in the justice system in a full and meaningful way.”
In Nova Scotia, those caught skipping jury selection face a $1,000 fine or possible jail time – although the maximum penalties are rarely imposed. Judge McDougall also warned that anyone found to be uncooperative could be held in contempt of court and jailed at his discretion.
As for Ms. Veniot, she told Judge McDougall she called a jury information phone line before Sept. 4, the date listed in the summons, but the message led her to believe the process had been postponed indefinitely.
She suggested there could have been a problem with the machine, but she later conceded she probably did not listen to the entire message, which said the date had been changed to Sept. 10.
“I’m not satisfied with your excuse,” Judge McDougall said.
Outside the court, Ms. Veniot agreed when asked if she thought she deserved the fine.
“I should have read a little further into it, the document, and I should have listened to the message and showed up,” she said. “It was a very clear message [from the judge] to show up, not to mess around with it and just do your part.”
Judge McDougall said he didn’t accept the flimsy excuses offered by three other people – a jobless young man, a single mother and a young, pregnant woman. But he let them go without a penalty because they said a fine would represent a financial hardship.
“The only message that would be sent is that there’s no compassion in the Supreme Court,” said Judge McDougall, noting it was Valentine’s Day.