Criminal Law

Canada's jury system a fundamental aspect of a democratic society

By Joseph Neuberger

The case of Dr. Guy Turcotte — in which a recent Quebec Court of Appeal decision overturned the finding of not criminally responsible for the death of his two children and entered a verdict of second degree murder — has sparked a concerning debate about whether juries are able to properly assess evidence and sit in judgement of our fellow Canadians on trials.

This emerging debate ponders whether judicial expertise is best suited, rather than lay people assessing evidence and complex issues.

One of the pillars, in my opinion, of a free and democratic society is for any persons charged with an indictable criminal offence to be tried by a jury of her or his peers. An erosion of the jury system would place undue judicial power in the hands of a single judge sitting on a trial and remove a basic tenant of our criminal justice system.

The first jury system dates back to fifth century BCE Ancient Greece. The roots of democracy are squarely planted in the use of the jury system.

If a jury, for some reason, makes an error, we have an appeal system that will carefully examine the evidence and verdict to assess whether the verdict was unreasonable or if there were any errors in the judge’s charge to the jury leading to an erroneous verdict.

Every week across Canada, juries are invested with the power to decide the guilt or innocence of people charged with a range of offences. One or two cases where it seems an erroneous or improper verdict was rendered should not make a foundation for scrapping the jury system.

Trial lawyers, both from the defence bar and the prosecution, can attest that juries are extremely capable of grasping complex issues of law and evidence and have a wonderful tool to draw upon — good common sense.

It would be a serious blow to the principles of fundamental justice to eliminate jury trials because of cases involving complex issues.

Juries take their role seriously and work hard to arrive at just verdicts. This is not to say that judges are not in an equal position to do a fair and just job; but the right to a judge-alone trial or a jury trial must be left to the individual charged with an indictable offence and not public sentiment over one or even a few cases where a jury verdict was overturned on appeal.

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