The Role of the Public

In Canada, each of us has a part in ensuring that the law works properly and that justice is done. Two ways of contributing to justice in Canada are being on a jury and testifying in court.

Jury duty

Serving on a jury is one way a citizen can carry out his or her role. A jury is a group of citizens who try an accused charged with a criminal offence. In Canada, a criminal law jury is made up of 12 jurors selected from among citizens of the province or territory in which the court is located. Any adult Canadian citizen can be considered for jury duty.

Being called for jury duty does not mean a person will be selected to serve as a juror but he or she must show up for the selection process. Some people may not be required to do jury duty by the laws of their province. Also, the prosecutor or the defence counsel may object to a particular juror if they believe there is a reason why he or she should be disqualified.

During the trial, jurors must not allow themselves to be influenced by anything except the evidence presented in court. Jurors must make up their own minds about the truth or honesty of the testimony given by witnesses.

After both sides have called all their witnesses and presented their arguments, the judge instructs the jury on the law and on what they must take into account when making their decision.

Trial by jury

Most civil cases in Canada are tried by judges without a jury. However, anyone charged with a criminal offence for which there can be a prison sentence of five years or more has the right to a trial by jury.

In some cases, a person charged with a criminal offence for which there can be a prison sentence of less than five years may have the right to choose a trial by jury.

Some civil cases can also be tried by judge and jury.

Criminal cases

The jurors meet in a room outside the courtroom to decide whether the prosecutor has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.

All the jurors must agree on the decision or verdict – their decision must be unanimous. If they cannot all agree, the judge may discharge the jury and direct a new jury to be chosen for a new trial. After a trial, jurors are not allowed to tell anyone else about the discussions that took place in the jury room.

Civil cases

The jury must decide whether the plaintiff has proven that the defendant is liable, that is, responsible, on a balance of probabilities.

There are only six jurors in a civil case, and the decision does not have to be unanimous as long as five of them agree on the verdict.

Testifying in court

A person who has information that either party in the case believes to be useful may be called to give evidence in a civil or criminal trial. Someone might have witnessed the event, know something that is important to the case, or have a document that is key to the trial.

People whose knowledge about a particular subject can help the court with answers to technical questions may also be called as expert witnesses.

If people have information they believe is related to the case, they may come forward voluntarily. If they do not, they can be summoned by subpoena to give evidence in court. A person who is subpoenaed must testify or face a penalty.

Witnesses must take an oath or affirm that they will tell the truth. They must answer all questions they are asked, unless the judge decides that a question is irrelevant.

Knowing the law

People do not have to be experts in the law. But ignorance of the law is no excuse or defence. If you are charged with an offence, for example, you cannot be excused by claiming that you did not know you were breaking the law. Because our laws are publicly debated before being passed in Parliament or a legislature, the public is expected to know what is legal and what is not.

The duty to know the law means that citizens should make sure they are acting legally. You can find this information from federal, provincial and territorial government offices, public libraries, public legal information associations, and the police. If, after consulting these sources of information, you are still uncertain about the law, then you should consult a lawyer.

Who gets legal aid?

Legal help for low-income people is as important as health care and education. The federal and provincial governments have set up a program to share the cost of legal services for those who qualify. Any person who meets the financial criteria and who is accused of a crime for which a conviction might mean jail or loss of livelihood may get legal aid. Some provinces also offer legal aid for civil cases, particularly in family-law matters.