The 2009 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, May 27, 2010
The National Post published a series of reports that revealed the Crown and police in Ontario were conducting secret background checks of potential jurors in criminal trials. Improper jury vetting was found to have occurred in more than 140 trials over the past three years. The reports sparked an investigation by the Ontario Privacy Commissioner which showed that one in three Crown offices had engaged in improper background checks.
You’re Excellencies, colleagues, the parents of Michelle Lang.
“Jury vetting” or “secret background checks” was how the National Post normally described the practice of police accessing confidential databases to give the Crown information it was not allowed to have.
Let me tell you what this also was. This was cheating.
It was longstanding and it was widespread in Ontario. It was the state putting its thumb on the scales of justice. Trying to impact something as fundamental as the right to a fair trial before an impartial jury. The Crown and police working together to get a prohibited leg up on jury selection.
The Juries Act was breached. Privacy rights were violated. In granting a mistrial in Windsor last year, the practice was described as “offensive” by Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas. It was an insult to the great majority of Crown attorneys who carry out their duties each day with integrity.
In Canada, we are permitted to know very little about the people summoned to do their civic duty. They are presumed to be impartial.
Nearly 20 years ago the Supreme Court explained that juries must represent a cross-section of society and be honestly and fairly chosen. Juries, the Supreme Court said, act as the “conscience of our community”. There is no right for the Crown or defence to delve into their backgrounds.
Courts in Canada have long restricted the questions potential jurors can be asked. This view has been consistently supported by the Crown, right across Canada. Why? To protect the privacy of jurors.
But in Ontario, at the same time that the Crown was arguing against expansion of so-called ‘challenge for cause questions’, it was secretly using police to violate those same privacy rights.
Jury checks appeared to end in Toronto in 1993. But in other parts of the province, it never stopped. And as the police databases grew wider, so did the information they obtained. Things like…..dad is a drinker…neighbour shot his cat…doesn’t like police…mental health issues.
This was the equivalent of the Crown on steroids at the starting line of a trial. Its banned substance – personal information about good citizens who had no idea they were being investigated. And just like the athlete caught cheating, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney-General had an implausible explanation.
These checks were to make sure that ineligible people, those with serious criminal convictions, did not get on to juries. That somehow, a person straight out of prison would be trying to got on a jury and then hoodwink 11 other people into acquitting one of his alleged peers.
It was a problem that didn’t exist. And to give you just one example – in a trial in Barrie where 800 people were subjected to every manner of database check – the number found to be ineligible for jury duty….was zero.
There are many people who deserve thanks, but briefly:
My colleagues at the Windsor Star for their good work on the Windsor end of the story. At the National Post, a truly collegial place to work, the support was widespread.
Thank you to editor-in-chief, Doug Kelly and deputy editor Steve Meurice who understood the significance of this issue from the start and let me keep going at it well after the first story. Thank you to Scott Stinson for his patience as an editor and for trusting his reporters. John Racovali deserves many thanks for his help, including fronting the paper the money for the entry fee for the Micheners.
The Privacy Commissioner and her staff conducted an important investigation.
Greg Lafontaine, Mitchell Worsoff and Iain MacKinnon – three very principled lawyers.
Finally, I must thank my parents, their spouses, all of my family. When my sister and her husband heard I was nominated, he said the Micheners. I’ve even heard of them. Indeed. This is an honour. Thank you and good luck to all the finalists.
Michener Awards Ceremony
May 27, 2010