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The notion of a jury – citizens acting as representatives of the public in trials and coroner’s inquests – is at the heart of Canada’s legal system. Ordinary people listen to proceedings, weigh the issues and render a verdict. The jury system demonstrates faith in the fairness, and wisdom, of Canadians, and is one of the few responsibilities that come with being a citizen.

Juries are fundamental to our legal system, which makes it all the more puzzling why governments across Canada, with the notable exception of Saskatchewan, refuse to properly pay jurors for their time.

More than a symbolic recognition of the importance of jury duty is at issue. With the exception of Newfoundland, most provinces do not require employers to continue to pay workers selected for jury duty. That puts hourly workers, generally lower paid, at a great disadvantage compared with those workers (typically salaried or unionized) whose employers opt to continue paying them during jury duty.

Yes, prospective jurors are able to plead financial hardship as a reason to be excused. But forcing lower-paid Canadians to do so, rather than compensating them for foregone wages, creates a built-in barrier that undermines the democratic intent of the jury system. That discrimination can be made worse by tight-fisted reimbursement policies.

Across most of the country, jurors’ daily compensation is but a fraction of what a minimum-wage job pays. Ontario is the worst offender, with no pay for the first 10 days of a trial, and then just $40 a day for the next 39 days. By contrast, 7½ hours of work at a minimum-wage job in Ontario pays $142.

Ontario is the most extreme case, but other provinces aren’t much better. The $20 a day that British Columbia pays jurors for the first 10 days of a trial is just 17 per cent of the province’s minimum wage. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Alberta are only slightly better, with juror pay ranging between a third and two-fifths of a day’s minimum-wage earnings. Quebec is close to the mark, with juror pay at 90 per cent of minimum wage for a trial of fewer than 56 days, and significantly above after that point.

In Newfoundland, employers are required to continue paying workers selected for jury duty. That merely shifts the financial burden from the individual to their employer, and is far from an ideal solution.

Saskatchewan’s approach is the best in the country. Jurors are paid $110 for each day or part of a day of a criminal or civil trial, more than matching the $105 in daily wages from a minimum-wage job. (In 2019, the province sharply increased those rates from an $80 daily payment for criminal trials and $25 for civil proceedings.)

The province also covers child-care expenses of up to $40 per child each day, and elder-care expenses of up to $80 a day per person. Most other provinces do not provide such payments, erecting another barrier that systemically discriminates against those most likely to be caregivers – women.

Plus, Saskatchewan reimburses travel expenses in line with the payments made to its own employees travelling on government business.

Even Saskatchewan falls short of the benchmark floated by the Commons justice committee in 2018, which recommended a daily rate of $120 (equal to more than $140 now). Still, its approach is by far the most equitable in the country, one that recognizes the value of the jury system. For any province worried about the cost of following suit, Saskatchewan has an answer: A juror who continues to receive their regular wages isn’t eligible for the daily honorarium.

The federal Justice department’s primer on jury duty notes that the constitutional guarantee of a jury trial “implies that the jury will be impartial and representative.” It goes on to assert that the composition of any particular jury does not have to mirror Canadian society, but that the state does have a constitutional obligation to ensure a “broad cross-section of society” takes part in the process.

That’s the theory. The practice, outside of Saskatchewan, subtly tinges the jury pool, creating incentives for poorer Canadians, particularly women, to ask to be excused. Provinces bear most of the responsibility for fixing this problem, but Ottawa has a role to play. Beyond highlighting the issue, the federal government could make jury pay tax-free, further limiting the hit to lower-income workers.

When it comes to properly paying jurors, there should be no excuses.

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