Witchcraft pretenders, pot heads, liars eligible to serve on Ontario juries

TORONTO — If you ever find yourself facing a jury in Ontario, your innocence or guilt could be decided by jurors with convictions for pretending to practise witchcraft or making a false statement under oath.

Alternatively, they could have impersonated a police officer or committed an indecent act and still found their way onto the panel deciding your fate.

These offences are among those officially listed for which Ontario residents can have a criminal record and still be eligible for jury duty.

As it is elsewhere in Canada, a Criminal Code conviction is generally a barrier to serving as a juror in Ontario — with the exception of 27 listed offences, according to an eligibility questionnaire sent to all prospective jurors in the province.

In addition, being found guilty of possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana is the only drug offence that won’t necessarily keep you off a jury for “personal reasons.”

The common thread to these crimes — they also include engaging in a prize fight, being caught in a brothel, or being nude in a public place — is that they are considered relatively minor “summary” offences that carry maximum penalties of $5,000 in fines and/or six months in jail.

Convictions for more serious indictable offences automatically disqualify you from jury duty in Ontario unless you have been pardoned.

Still, some of the listed offences that have no effect on eligibility are straight up head-scratchers.

There’s the arcane offence of trading in lumbering equipment without consent of owner, disturbing a religious worship, or carrying a weapon to a public meeting. Your juror may also have been convicted of failing to keep watch while towing a person on water skis or surfboard, or throwing a stink bomb into a crowd.

Heather Visser, a spokeswoman for Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General, said people with certain kinds of criminal records have been shut out of jury duty since at least 1850.

“Having people serve on a jury who themselves have certain types of criminal convictions could undermine confidence in the justice system,” Visser said in an email.

She would not say why having a pretend witchcraft practitioner, vagrant, convicted liar, or someone who makes indecent phone calls serve as a juror might not have that effect.

Like Ontario, each province is responsible for maintaining its jury rolls, and qualification varies from one to the other.

For example, Alberta residents are excluded if they have been convicted of a criminal offence that carries a maximum sentence of more than one year, while being legally confined to an institution is one of the ineligibility criteria in Saskatchewan.

Residents of British Columbia, on the other hand, need only be charged with a crime that carries a maximum fine of more than $2,000 or at least 12 months imprisonment to be excluded, while Newfoundland exempts anyone charged with an indictable offence or who has been jailed for same — if there was no option to pay a fine.

Eligibility to be a juror does not mean you will serve on one. Apart from provincial rules, the Criminal Code grants prosecutors and lawyers an unfettered right to challenge jurors who have been “sentenced to death” — or to a term of imprisonment exceeding 12 months. They also have some options to screen out others they deem undesirable.

Tangentially, a juror convicted in Ontario of disclosing a jury’s secret deliberations should in theory be allowed to serve on a subsequent panel. It’s a summary offence.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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