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Illegal Background Checks Conducted On Prospective Jurors

Crown prosecutors and police in several Ontario communities conducted secret background checks on prospective jurors, Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian will report Monday following an investigation by her office into the illegal practice.

The commissioner began the investigation after reports Crown attorneys in Barrie, Windsor and Thunder Bay convinced police to do background checks on jury candidates in violation of provincial law.

The background checks – which saw investigators reporting back on such things as whether or not the potential jurors like police – have resulted in two mistrials so far as defence lawyers claim abuse of process.

Background checks were conducted on potential jurors in at least 20 trials in Barrie, and sources say Cavoukian has discovered the controversial practice was not contained to those three communities.

However, the Ministry of the Attorney General said Friday that its survey found the background checks on jurors were limited.

“There were 20 cases identified in Barrie, in which there was a conviction following a jury trial,” confirmed ministry spokesman Brendan Crawley. There was also a case in Windsor in which a new jury was selected and the trial is continuing, he added.

“The Chief Prosecutor’s inquiries in all 54 jurisdictions determined that the practice of broad undisclosed jury background checks, which was undertaken in Barrie, is not widespread,” said Crawley.

There were jurisdictions which did criminal record checks to ensure criminals are not sitting on juries, in accordance with the Crown Policy Manual, he added.

“There are six cases in Sarnia in which a permissible criminal background check was done,” he said. “We have confirmed this was disclosed in three of these cases.”

Crawley said the Attorney General’s office wrote to defence counsel in those cases “out of an abundance of caution.”

The ministry also advised the privacy commissioner “that a Crown in Goderich made verbal inquiries by speaking to two people to determine whether any of the potential jurors had a conflict of interest,” added Crawley.

In June, Premier Dalton McGuinty insisted the government “has done all it can” to stop Crown prosecutors and police from secretly investigating prospective jurors.

Attorney General Chris Bentley sent out a directive in May telling Crowns and police to stop investigating people who may be called for jury duty beyond the usual criminal background checks.

Critics pointed out the province had sent a similar directive in 2006 and it did not stop the illegal checks from taking place.

Cavoukian had sent surveys to all 54 Crown jurisdictions in Ontario to determine the nature and extent of the jury background checks over the past three years since they were first told to stop doing them.

She also sent a team of investigators to Windsor, Barrie and Thunder Bay to interview police who provided the information on jurors to the local Crown attorney’s office.