Don't Pre-Judge! Jury Vetting and the Supreme Court of Canada

Next Wednesday and Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada will be hearing the appeals of Tung Chi Duong, Vinicio Cardoso, and Ibrahim Yumnu, which raise the issue of jury vetting: a process where the prosecution does a pre-court check of potential jurors. The three Ontario co-accused were convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder involving a contract killing. The Crown’s office, upon receipt of the jury panel lists containing the names of potential jurors, requested police enforcement authorities to do criminal record checks of the listed individuals and to make any comments “concerning any disreputable persons we would not want as a juror.” The Crown did not disclose the information received through this pre-vetting process to the defence, although there was some evidence trial counsel was aware of this practice. The information was used by the trial Crown in selecting the jury for the trial.

In terms of the legislative authority to perform such a check, neither the Criminal Code rules relating to the jury selection process in court nor the pre-trial rules found in the provincial Juries Act, as enacted at the time of the trial, permitted the procedure. It should be noted that the Ontario Juries Act has since been amended, under s.18.2, to provide a procedure for police to pre-check a potential juror for the presence or absence of a criminal record. Such a check is required under s. 4(b) to determine if a potential juror is ineligible to serve as a juror due to a prior conviction for “an offence that may be prosecuted on indictment.” The phrase “may be prosecuted on indictment” refers to the mode of trying the accused’s case in the criminal courts.  An indictable offence is considered to be a more serious crime and carries a higher penalty than a less serious summary conviction offence. Certain indictable offences give the accused the right to have the trial in the Superior Court as opposed to Provincial Court. Some indictable offences, such as murder, also give the accused the right to a jury trial.

Generally, pre-vetting of jurors is not an acceptable practice in Canada. Such a pre-trial process is contrary to the fundamental principles of justice, which require the offender to be tried before an independent and impartial jury. Since the advent of the Charter, this fundamental principle has been constitutionally protected under s. 11 (d) and is inexorably bound up with another core criminal law principle: the presumption of innocence. I have written at length on the historical significance of the presumption in earlier postings. More generally, this procedural right to a fair trial is also protected under section 7 of the Charter as the principle lies at the very heart of the administration of justice.

The issue is one of impartiality under the Charter. Section 11(d) protects an offender’s right to a fair trial before an independent and impartial jury. Permitting pre-vetting of jurors has the potential effect of selecting biased juries, which are neither independent nor impartial, but based on selected criterion. The resultant effect is a pre-packaged or pre-determined jury, which would therefore favour the party using the pre-selection process. In other words such a jury would “pre-judge” the issues.

Even the potential for bias is contrary to our concept of trial fairness. As discussed by Justice Cory in the Bain case, apprehension of jury bias is to be avoided as the mere appearance of impartiality would be contrary to Charter principles. Although the concept holds the administration of justice to a high standard of impartiality, the apprehension of bias must be reasonably held. Thus, the question to be determined on the issue of bias is as follows: would reasonable and right-minded persons find there a reasonable apprehension of bias in the circumstances.

This question brings us back to the Duong, Cardoso, and Yumnu case. On appeal to the Court of Appeal for Ontario, appellate counsel did not refer to the arguments as outlined above but focused instead upon the Crown’s lack of disclosure of the vetting process. In the appellant’s view, this lack or delay of disclosure compromised the defence’s ability to make full answer and defence under s. 7 of the Charter. This position was easily dismissed by Justice Watt, speaking on behalf of the Court, as there was no evidence of any actual or perceived unfairness of the selection of the jury based on this non-disclosure. Unfortunately it appears the defence will be making the same arguments before the Supreme Court of Canada as revealed by a perusal of the appellant Yumnu’s factum.

However, a large number of Intervenors have filed material and will be making submissions on the issue such as the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the Ontario Crown Attorneys’ Association, David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. It remains to be seen what arguments will be finally presented on this issue and it will be of great interest to see how the Supreme Court of Canada ultimately deals with the issue of pre-vetting a jury.

In the next posting, I will continue the discussion through the international perspective on the efficacy and issues surrounding jury vetting.