Ontario jurors finally have full access to counselling services after traumatic trials

Jurors in criminal trials are sometimes exposed to graphic evidence.
Jurors in criminal trials are sometimes exposed to graphic evidence. (Photo: iStock)

Jurors in criminal trials are sometimes exposed to graphic evidence, which can leave them traumatized and needing counselling. Until now, if you were an Ontario juror you didn’t have access to such services unless a judge gave you permission.

Starting in January 2017, jurors will no longer need to get permission. The Ontario government will be providing jurors with free, accessible services for counselling and they will be informed about the services at the beginning and end of a trial.

On the need for this new program, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi told CBC News: "There's no substitute to lived experiences. That prompted me to ask questions within my ministry as to how we provide support for jurors." He acknowledges that jurors sometimes witness “horrific and gruesome evidence,” which can leave them with mental trauma long after a trial has ended.

The government started re-examining the way jurors were getting counselling after a man who served as a juror in a gruesome murder trial in 2014 went public about his post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

However, he is not the only juror to come forward. A juror at the Michael Rafferty trial was so disturbed by evidence of the rape and murder of Tori Stafford, that she developed a severe case of PTSD. She is now seeking compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. Whether she is entitled to it will be decided by the Ontario Court of Appeal this month.

Given people chosen for jury duty have no choice but to fulfill this civic duty, it’s strange that it took so long for the government to realize that they should be providing counselling services for all jurors, without first forcing them to jump through hoops.

The need for counselling services for jurors is not a new issue. Former chief justice of the Superior Court in Ontario, Patrick Lesage, said that his nearly 30 years of experience as a judge convinced him that jurors need to have access to counselling and medical assistance.

He admits that he only seldom ordered or suggested counselling and once was for the highly disturbing Bernardo trial. Though the trial occurred over 20 years ago, the disturbing video footage Lesage and the jurors were forced to see isn’t likely to be forgotten.

I had been a judge for many years by the time that trial had started but I still find it disturbing,” Lesage said, adding that he got counselling after that trial.

Yaqvi said that the new program is likely to cost the government between $30,000 and $55,000 per year and is to be absorbed into the attorney general’s budget.

Update: The juror from the Michael Rafferty trial who sought compensation has reached a settlement with the government hours before her case was to be heard by the Ontario Court of Appeal.
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