Advocates call for mental health help for jurors on anniversary of Stafford verdict

OTTAWA — Advocates fighting for better mental health and financial supports for Canadians who serve on juries say they are concerned about the stalled progress of a bill that would allow jurors to disclose details of the cases they witness to a medical professional.

Mark Farrant, founder of the Canadian Juries Commission and a former juror, says he does not understand why Bill S-212 has been left to languish in the Senate.

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He worries the negative mental health impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on many Canadians could make jury duty even more distressing for those who must listen to difficult cases.

"We're concerned that Canadians returning to court with increased anxiety, their mental health is going to be even more vulnerable, given their presence in court and having to endure graphic evidence and just the trauma and stress of jury service," Farrant said.

He wanted to highlight the issue Tuesday in particular, as it marked the ninth anniversary of the guilty verdict that sent Michael Rafferty to prison for the brutal rape and murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford in 2009.

Currently, it is illegal for jurors to divulge anything not discussed in open court with anyone.

Bill S-212 proposes to allow jurors and those who provide support to them to speak to a licensed health care professional if their mental health has been affected by their jury duty.

It is the third time a bill attempting to make this change has been introduced in Parliament. The first was a private member's bill from Conservative MP Michael Cooper, which died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved for the 2019 election.

Sen. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu revived it in the Senate in 2019, but it also died after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament last August. He has since reintroduced it, but it remains at second reading and has not been discussed in the Upper Chamber since December.

Farrant says he has heard from former Canadian jurors who have been denied mental health support by clinicians worried about the legal ramifications of taking on a juror as a patient.

"It's common-sense legislation to make a small amendment in the Criminal Code to allow the jury to talk about all aspects of the trial within the confines of a therapeutic relationship with a mental health practitioner, " Farrant said.

"It doesn't change the sanctity of deliberation, I'll still never be able to talk in public about what happened in the back room and how a decision was reached. But I certainly will be able to make gains in my mental health and get back to my life and get back to my family and my community having served the justice system."

Tina Daenzer, a juror in the 1995 case against Paul Bernardo, says she still can’t walk alone at night because of the trauma of sitting through graphic video evidence that was played over and over during the trial.

Bernardo was given a life sentence for the kidnapping, rape and first-degree murder of two teenage girls — Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French — in the early 1990s.

"It's 26 years later and I would still never go for a walk for the woods by myself. Never. I don't like to be out in the dark by myself, I get extremely nervous in a parking garage … because now I know there's monsters in the world that look like regular people who do horrible things, so it really scarred me forever."

Even jurors who don't have to watch graphic evidence can be affected by trials that decide a person's freedom, Daenzer said.

"Think about the jurors that found Guy Paul Morin guilty. You've sent a man to jail for 20 years and now he's exonerated, but you sent him there. Yes, it was based on the evidence you had, but this must still weigh very heavily on people, but you can't talk about it with anyone," she said.

"Bill-212 is probably going to die in the Senate and we demanded today that the prime minister and justice minister step in to pass this bill."

Farrant noted that the Commons justice committee studied the issue of supports for jurors, and recommended three years ago that government change the secrecy rule to allow jurors to speak to mental health professionals.

It also called for Ottawa to provide funding to the provinces and territories to provide better financial compensation for jurors, as the daily jury allowances have not increased in many Canadian jurisdictions in decades.

David Taylor, a spokesman for Justice Minister David Lametti, said the issue of juror support falls mainly with the provinces, given their responsibility for the administration of justice.

But said the federal government "continues to work with the provinces and territories to improve support measures for jurors."

The Liberals also supported Cooper's private member's bill when it was brought to the House of Commons, Taylor added, saying they "look forward" to the new bill once the Senate has concluded its work on it.

"Our government recognizes the vital role and dedicated service of jurors in the Canadian justice system," Taylor said in a statement.

"We are committed to ensuring they have the support they need to carry out their dedicated service."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2021.

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