Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail's Ian Brown was recently called to jury duty.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

By the afternoon of Day 2 in the jury-selection waiting room of the Superior Court of Justice in downtown Toronto, a gently bubbling sexual desire seems to be surfacing among the 200-odd good citizens summoned for jury duty in the first week of the new year.

The investment banker, for instance – the fellow with the fine shirts and the well-coiffed hair – is leaving for lunch with a female co-juror of his recent acquaintance. And several enthusiasts now congregate daily in the basement lunchroom from 1 to 2 p.m. around a vivacious middle-aged woman with silver hair.

Such is the sublime boredom of those summoned to perform their dull civic duty. Many are called, few are chosen. Meanwhile, we're here for a minimum of four days, the pool of humanity from which the week's juries will be chosen.

Story continues below advertisement

The video on Day 1 is keen to tell us how excited we ought to be. Trials, the narrator informs us, are all about "the right of an individual to be judged by equals. … You might say a jury is the conscience of a community."

"Little did I know it would turn out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life," a fellow on the big screen confesses. He's wearing a hard hat; he's an ordinary person.

"Even though I missed the chance to make a few more dollars," he adds, closing his massive red toolbox, "I'd jump at the chance to be a juror again."

That seems unlikely. All anyone can talk about this morning is whether or not they can get themselves excused.

About 480 citizens are summoned every Monday from the city's property-tax census rolls to be potential jurors in one of the building's 29 criminal courtrooms. But 40 per cent called ahead to postpone; another third of the remainder will claim health problems, that they're students or single mothers, or that serving will create financial hardship, and will be dismissed before the day is over.

The average criminal jury trial – Toronto had 148 in 2010 – consumes three to four days, though they can last up to a month. (Trials longer than a month pick juries from specially designated panels.) The province pays nothing for the first 11 days of jury service; days 11 to 50 earn $40 a day, or roughly half the minimum wage.

If half the citizens left in the room make the average hourly wage, that's $17,000 a day in forgone or wasted salaries. In other words, the government may tout the ancient democratic glory of doing your jury duty, but it doesn't actually value that duty very highly. Estimates of wages lost to jury duty every year in Ontario begin at $10-million.

Story continues below advertisement

Pardon me?

Shortly before lunch, slightly more than half of the potential jurors in the room – about 120 people – are called up to Courtroom 4-8, where a man is accused of assaulting and raping a young woman under the age of 16.

The judge reads us instructions – for instance, if people are hard of hearing, they should raise their hand and proceed to the front of the courtroom.

I proceed.

"Yes?" the judge says.

"I'm a little hard of hearing, judge. In the mid-range, especially if it's a woman's voice in the upper register, in a big room with lots of competing noise."

Story continues below advertisement

"Can you hear me now?" the judge says. "Because I am a woman." Titters from the crowd.

"Yes, I'm aware of that. But I don't know how close I'll be to the witness."

"The witness will be right in front of you."

I slink to my seat, ashamed.

The clerk of the court cranks a wooden drum filled with our names. Four groups of 50 potential jurors are drawn. We line up – the entire experience of jury duty is a series of lineups – and are moved into an empty adjoining courtroom, and told to sit and wait while the lawyers interview potential jurors.

Three hours go by. It's as if we are in church, what with the pews and the 20-foot ceiling, the oak-panelled walls, the dim lighting, the altar of the judge's dais.

It's a diverse crowd. There is a guy in an Elmer Fudd cap and a sleeveless quilted vest who looks like he stepped into a Canadian cliché in 1957 and never stepped out again. There is a gardener (self-employed, but it's a slow time of year); an art director at an advertising agency (which is paying her wages regardless); a human-resources manager, a vice-president of finance, two security guards, an engineer and a retired subway technician. Three blacks, more Asians, mostly whites. A wide range of ages.

All but a handful of people are reading – books, mostly; a few Kindles; one or two magazines. John Updike. Keith Richards. John Galsworthy. Bestsellers.

The silence is total, a coma of stillness. These are our most public, idealized selves, the obedient ones who make the system work. It's a delicate state of repose: Between the contentment of not having to work and the boredom of not being able to lies a brief respite from the chaos of the real world. The lofty courtroom feels like a huge mind, the theoretical cranium of civil society.

Finally, at half past 3, a court officer releases us for the day.

Day 2 begins: more waiting. No one wants to shirk their duty, but who wants to get involved in a huge case, such as the police fraud trial that starts next week and is expected to last six months? (That jury was picked before Christmas.)

Later in the afternoon, we narrowly miss being empanelled for a four-week trial that scoops up half the jurors in the room as prospects.

The rest of us are kept to the very end of the day, in case the judge needs more jurors.

This is the thing, you see: We want to be available to do our duty, but we don't want to be called to do it.

Perhaps this is all right. Keeners are to be avoided. Omar Khadr's lawyers dismissed jurors who had volunteered for jury duty, in case they were zealots. The bored and the reluctant seldom rush to judgment.

Finally, it happens. At 11:30 on the morning of Day 3, an officer of the court reveals that no more juries are needed this week. We've done our duty, and can't be called again for three years.

We've probably forgone or wasted $42,000 in wages. But that's the price of a civilized society.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to