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Joseph Campisi: Ontario should eliminate civil jury trials

Ontario should follow Quebec’s lead and abolish civil jury trials. A jury trial in a civil case is not a constitutional right, as it is in criminal cases. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, civil jury trials added to unnecessary delay and expense in the civil justice system. But now, with tax revenues collapsing, provincial budget deficits soaring and our courts in an unprecedented lockdown as a result of the pandemic, there is much greater urgency in addressing the defects of our civil justice system. The abolition of civil jury trials is a simple solution that would save both time and cost in our court system.

It is a truism that justice delayed is justice denied. Yet the presence of juries in civil trials lengthens trials without providing any demonstrable value to the justice system. Extra time is needed: for jury selection, for the judge to hear and decide motions on whether certain evidence should be heard by the jury, for the judge to charge the jury before it deliberates and for the jury to decide on its verdict. The use of civil jury trials also contributes to a delay in matters being tried — sometimes for up to two years from the time an action is certified as being ready for trial. Delays of this length should be unacceptable in any civilized justice system.

The presence of juries results in a remarkably opaque system of adjudication. Parties are permitted to know very little about jury members before they are called to serve. Once seated, jurors are told to ignore all evidence that they hear out of court, but with little oversight as to whether they comply with that direction. They are also told never to discuss their deliberations with anyone outside the courtroom — but again with little oversight. At trial’s end, they are not expected to provide any reasoning for their verdict; in fact, they are prohibited from publicly discussing their deliberations. The verdict they render is given great deference, both by presiding trial judges and by appeal courts, to the point that a jury verdict is virtually unappealable.

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