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99-year-old Quebec woman threatened with criminal charges for failing to appear for jury duty

Marion Lenko, 99, is bedridden and under 24-hour care in Montreal's West Island. (Submitted by Edward Ritchuk - image credit)
Marion Lenko, 99, is bedridden and under 24-hour care in Montreal's West Island. (Submitted by Edward Ritchuk - image credit)

Edward Ritchuk's 99-year-old mother-in-law is in a long-term care home, bedridden, hard of hearing and unable to hold a conversation.

So he found it pretty odd when Marion Lenko was summoned to court for jury selection.

"When I first received the letter, I thought it was a joke," he said.

The summons was delivered first to her seniors' residence. Then in December, it was sent to Ritchuk's home in Beaconsfield, Que., an on-island Montreal suburb. She was expected to appear for selection earlier this month.

Ritchuk said he emailed her son, who lives in Florida and is legally responsible for Lenko. But he said her son never responded to the summons, failing to ask for an exemption.

"Then this week, I received a letter from the Justice Ministry saying that she has to appear on the 31st of January in court or procedures will be taken against her," he said.

Lenko was born in July 1923 and is now living under 24-hour medical care in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., in the West Island.

Ritchuk said he can't believe that there was no verification done before his mother-in-law was sent a letter saying she could be criminally liable for not fulfilling her jury duty.

Unable to get through on phone

Ritchuk says he tried calling the number provided in the letter but was sent to an automated system where, he says, he was unable to get through to anyone.

As far as he could tell, someone needs to appear in person. But Ritchuk can't represent his mother-in-law. It's her son who has power of attorney, and he's more than 2,400 kilometres away.

Ritchuk's wife died a couple of years ago and he has stayed in touch with Lenko, having known her since 1972. Now, he says he's stuck in the middle and is unsure what to do next.

Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC
Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC

Isabelle Boily, a spokesperson for the Justice Ministry, said a person may be disqualified from serving as a juror or there may be circumstances preventing them from fulfilling their obligations.

"If so, it is possible to request an exemption or postponement of participation by completing the form received with the notice," Boily said in an email.

"This form must be sent to the sheriff with the supporting documents within 20 days of receiving the notice."

In addition, as indicated in the notice of summons of the prospective juror, it is possible for prospective jurors over the age of 65 to request the exemption by calling the sheriff's office within the required 20-day period.

Boily said it is possible for a family member to call in their place.

Lawyer calls situation 'shameful'

Eric Sutton, a criminal defence attorney in Montreal, said any Canadian citizen over the age of 18 can be summoned for jury duty. Information on exemptions comes with the summons, and the summons is sent by the sheriff's office based on the polling list, not birthdays.

It's up to the person who receives the summons to invoke or apply for the exemption with the forms provided, he said. He said the documents need to be filled out and proof provided.

He's skeptical that a simple phone call to the ministry or sheriff's office would be enough.

"From what I understand, this family tried to phone and to no avail," Sutton said, noting the exception would have very likely been accepted in this case were the documents filled out.

"Now she's facing this fear of possibly being fined or imprisoned. I saw it in the paperwork. That's pretty tough medicine for a 99-year-old woman who is hard of hearing. Shameful."