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THE CITIZEN AND THE LAW




It is important to understand that every Canadian is part of the justice system, and that justice is not only the business of police, lawyers, judges and lawmakers. Individual citizens must play their part in the justice system if the law is to work and justice is to be done.

Jury Duty

The jury is one of the oldest institutions of our criminal justice system. It entitles those who have been charged with a criminal offence to be tried by a group of fellow citizens. In Canada, a jury is made up of 12 persons who have been selected from among citizens of the province or territory in which the court is located. The precise method of selecting citizens for jury duty is determined by the laws of the various provinces. Generally, the qualifications for jury duty are Canadian citizenship and age of majority.

Although most cases in Canada are tried by judges without a jury, the Charter states that any person who is 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 who is charged with a criminal offence for which there can be a prison sentence of less than five years may have a right to choose a trial by jury. In some jurisdictions, some civil cases can also be tried by judge and jury.

A citizen who is called for jury duty is obliged to attend, unless excused by the laws of the province. Being called for jury duty does not necessarily mean that a person will be selected to serve as a juror; either the prosecutor or the defence counsel may object to the choice of a particular juror if they believe there is a reason why he or she should be disqualified.

In the course of 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 accuracy or honesty of the testimony given by witnesses in the trial. Finally, when both sides have called their witnesses and presented their arguments, and the judge has instructed the jury on the law and on what they must take into account when making their decision, the jurors meet by themselves in a room outside the courtroom. This is where they must decide: in a criminal case, whether the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused person is guilty; or in a civil case, whether the plaintiff has proven on a balance of probabilities that the defendant is liable.

Regardless of the jury's verdict, it must be unanimous. That is, the jurors must all agree on it. If they cannot agree, the judge may discharge the jury, freeing them from further duties, and direct that a new jury be empanelled. After the trial, no juror is permitted to inform other people about the discussions that took place in the jury room.

Testifying in Court

A person may be called to give evidence in a civil or criminal trial because he or she has information that either party in the case believes to be useful. For example, someone might have witnessed an offence, know something that is important to the case, or possess a key document. A person may also be called as an "expert witness". An expert witness is a person whose knowledge about a particular subject can help the court obtain answers to technical questions.

Usually, persons come forward voluntarily when they have information that they believe is related to the case. An individual may also be summoned by "subpoena" to give evidence in court. A subpoena is a command by the court to testify, whether or not the person has volunteered. It is used when the prosecution, plaintiff, accused or defendant wishes to call a person as a witness in the trial. Persons have a duty to testify in court when required to do so, and a person subpoenaed must comply with the order or face a penalty.

Witnesses' testimony is taken under oath or by affirmation. Witnesses are required to answer all questions they are asked, unless the judge decides that a question need not be answered for some reason: for example, because it is irrelevant. Testifying in court is essential to making Canada's justice system work as it should.

Knowing the Law

Individuals do not have to be experts in the law: that is the responsibility of lawyers. However, in our system of law, ignorance of the law is no defence. This means that persons charged with offences cannot be excused simply by claiming that they did not know they were breaking the law, although the court will consider honest mistakes of fact. Further, because our laws are publicly debated before being passed in Parliament or a provincial legislature, the public is expected to know what is permitted and what is not.

Knowing the law means that citizens should take reasonable steps to be sure they are acting legally. Information is available from federal and provincial government offices, public libraries, and the police. If, after consulting these sources of information, a person is still uncertain about the law, then a lawyer should be consulted.