With B.C.’s court system facing a backlog of trials that won’t be caught up for years, the province is considering putting an end to juries in civil cases.
Juries for civil actions, to settle financial and injury claims rather than criminal charges, were suspended in 2020 when B.C.’s COVID-19 health restrictions took effect. The suspension has been extended twice, and now continues until October 2022.
The B.C. Law Institute was asked to research the use of juries in B.C. civil cases and came up with options including the status quo, eliminating juries in civil cases and restricting the jury option to cases involving defamation, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. Attorney General David Eby is accepting public input until Sept. 30 on the issue, and expects to have a decision on how to change the law by the time the current suspension runs out next year.
Juries in B.C. civil cases have been an option since 1876, but in practice they are rarely used. People requesting a jury have to pay for the additional costs, to be reimbursed if their case is successful, and judges have the option of ordering a trial by judge alone for cases with documents, scientific or local investigation that would be complicated by a jury.
Juries are also not available in cases dealing with a deceased person’s estate, custody or guardianship of infants, redemption or foreclosure of a mortgage, partnerships or dissolution of partnerships, specific performance of a contract and partition or sale of real estate. Juries in B.C. civil cases have eight members, with agreement of six out of eight enough to decide a question put to the jury.
“Use of civil juries reportedly atrophied in B.C. from the late 19th century until it revived in the 1950s in relation to personal injury actions,” the B.C. Law Institute’s discussion paper says. “This remains the area in which civil juries are most frequently employed, though the number of actual jury trials is very low in proportion to the number of jury notices that are filed.”
The institute’s research found that between 2015 and 2020, jury notices were filed in more than 21,000 civil actions, but only 120 civil jury trials were actually completed during the same five years. The institute’s paper suggests that filing for a jury may be seen as a “tactical benefit” for one side in the dispute, to add potential risk and cost, leading to a more favourable settlement before trial.