Jurors perform a difficult, stressful job that should be acknowledged and supported

Published on January 28, 2014


There are designated days for showing appreciation to administrative professionals, pharmacists, and nurses. We are encouraged by television advertising, T-shirt slogans and buttons to thank a teacher, a firefighter, a farmer, or a soldier.   

How often do we think to recognize the underpaid citizens who perform one of the most important tasks in our society: serving on a jury?

Being tried by a jury of your peers is a practice that dates back centuries. British colonies, including Canada, adopted the tradition from the system of British common law. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes the right to trial by jury for serious criminal offences.

Jurors can assume a heavy burden in providing this right. If you’re chosen to sit on a jury in Quebec, you’ll take home $90 for each day of the trial. In Nova Scotia, it’s $40, or about half of what a full-time minimum wage earner would make. In Ontario, there is no remuneration at all for trials lasting 10 days or less. Employers are under no obligation to pay employees while they’re off for jury duty. For people with no paid vacation time to take, or the self-employed, it can be a financial hardship.

Jury duty is also physically and mentally taxing – six or seven hours a day of sitting still and trying to remain attentive while being bombarded with data. Take, for example, a high-profile payroll fraud trial in the county several years ago that included several days of detailed, technical descriptions of record keeping practices which were difficult to absorb and left the mind spinning.

Then there’s the emotional strain that comes with sitting through some criminal cases. Listening to graphic testimony, viewing crime scene images, and absorbing the emotional vibes of the family and friends of the victim and accused in the courtroom can leave one feeling overwhelmed, edgy, and shaky. It can cause stomach upset, difficulty sleeping at night, even anxiety attacks. Having spent 10 years covering court proceedings as a journalist, including hearings and trials for murder, attempted murder, sexual assault, child abuse, and incest cases, I can attest to this first-hand.

In the 1990s Stanley Kaplan, a medical doctor and professor of psychiatry, and Carolyn Winget, an associate professor of psychology, studied the experiences of jurors assigned to what they called “highly charged” criminal trials. Their findings were published in a paper titled “The Occupational Hazards of Jury Duty” in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law in 1992 (Vol . 20, No. 3, p325-333). Kaplan and Winget interviewed 40 jurors from four criminal trials – two murders, one child abuse, and one obscenity case.  Twenty-seven of the 40 jurors reported physical or physiological symptoms ranging from headaches, hives, and gastrointestinal distress to faintness, heart palpitations and depression. The researchers found the amount of stress experienced by the jurors depended on several factors, including the nature of the trial, the length of duration of the proceedings, the nature of the testimony and evidence presented, the ease or difficulty in reaching a verdict, and public’s attitude about the case.

It’s hardly surprising that serving on a jury can be stressful. Being responsible for someone’s freedom is a heavy weight to bear. The verdict the jury renders also affects whether or not the victims and their loved ones receive closure and can begin to move on with their lives. The expectations of the public can also be strongly felt in some cases. Whether the jury acquits or convicts, someone’s going to be disappointed, angry, or even resentful.

And in the back of jurors’ minds, undoubtedly, is the fear: what if they get it wrong? Real-life trials don’t mirror television courtroom dramas where a crucial piece of evidence appears in the nick of time, making the accused’s guilt or innocence unquestionable. Investigators don’t always get all the evidence they want, or get it in a way that’s admissible in court. Witnesses sometimes lie on the stand. Mistakes happen.

In the Yukon, a pilot program was implemented in 2005 to provide psychologist-led debriefing sessions for jurors following complex, potentially disturbing trials. A Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family 2008 report, “Juror Stress Debriefing: a review of the literature and an evaluation of a Yukon program” (http://people.ucalgary.ca/~crilf/publications/Jury_Stress_Final_Report.pdf), found jurors from murder trials who were interviewed about the program responded positively to the debriefings. They said they were given information about support services in the community and would recommend the sessions to other jurors.

Serving on a jury is not an entirely thankless task. Jurors are publicly thanked for their service by the judge at the end of the proceedings. Sometimes, though, they may need more than that.  In the aftermath of a tragedy, aid and counselling are often offered to the people who were on the front lines – firefighters and paramedics at a fatal accident, students at a school whose classmates have been killed. The men and women who serve on juries also deserve our respect, appreciation, and whatever post-trial support they require.