Between January 2012 and August 2014 Northwest Territories judges declared 11 mistrials when the courts were unable to seat 12 jurors.
The shortage of jurors results too frequently in small communities where most everyone knows either the victim or the complainant, is related to a trial participant, or is well acquainted with the facts of the event.
In addition, roughly only half the people summoned for jury duty show up to court to face selection. Consequently trials have to be postponed, often for as much as nine months, before court space, a judge, lawyers and witnesses can again find a date agreeable to all.
Canadian criminal law allows for a judge to send sheriffs out into the street to round up potential jurors if a jury vacancy occurs at the last minute, as it did recently in Hinton, Alberta.
A trial ready to proceed suddenly found itself short one juror. Justice J. H. Goss of Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta empowered a pair of Alberta sheriffs, through a summons, to round up 20 potential jurors at Walmart’s Parks West Mall.
The sheriffs filled a bus with shoppers nabbed from the aisles carrying their purchases and delivered them to court where they were questioned by the opposing lawyers to ascertain their eligibility to be jurors.
Jurors must be declared eligible, impartial, representative, and competent.
Once a juror had been selected to fill the vacancy, the other 19 shoppers were returned to Walmart.
This manner of filling a jury at first seemed a throwback to Westerns when a sheriff would scoop men from a saloon to serve at a moment’s notice.
But within a week after the Hinton case another showed up in the news, this one in Iqaluit where a sexual assault trial was set to begin but needed one more juror.
Seventy potential jury members had been summoned to the court. A number were excused for medical reasons or were challenged by the Crown and defence lawyers.
Others were dismissed for knowing the accused, potential witnesses or the complainant. When the pool was drained, the court was still short one juror.
Nunavut Justice Sue Cooper ordered the sheriff onto the streets to randomly summon 12 more people in order to complete the jury selections, reports CBC News.
The trial was able to proceed that afternoon. No nine month wait there for an alternate court date.
Three days of evidence was heard. The jury deliberated two hours before convicting the man of assaulting the 13-year-old.
While rounding up potential last minute jurors may seem like a rare occurrence, checking finds it not to be so especially in Edmonton where the practice rivals seasonal ranch roundups.
In October, 2013 an Owen Sound, Ontario court ran short of jurors for a criminal trial after a panel of 125 potential jurors failed to fill twelve seats.
There, too, the judge issued a summons for two sheriffs to comb the streets for likely individuals. Sheriffs asked prospects if they were 18 years old, a Canadian citizen, and if there was any reason they couldn’t sit on a jury?
If a sheriff asks a more probing question he risks discipline for pre-selecting a juror, a determination to be made only by judge and lawyers.
One man was excused because he was scheduled for knee surgery the next week.
In this Owen Sound case, by the time the sheriffs and their hastily chosen passengers arrived at the court house, a mistrial had been declared. Each person was paid $100, a discretionary payment ordered by the judge, and driven back to the mall in taxis to resume their day.