At the Opening of the Courts this week in Ontario, Justice Strathy, the new Chief Justice for the Province, gave a speech which highlighted how the court system is largely inaccessible to the majority of the public, largely due to the cost, complexity and time involved.
He made particular reference to his experience in the Ontario courts as a need for reform:
Having been a lawyer and a judge in this province for over 40 years, it strikes me that we have built a legal system that has become increasingly burdened by its own procedures, reaching a point that we have begun to impede the very justice we are striving to protect. With the best of intentions we have designed elaborate rules and practices, engineered to ensure fairness and achieve just results. But perfection can be the enemy of the good, and our justice system has become so cumbersome and expensive that it is inaccessible to many of our own citizens.
In my view, we must ask every court, every court office, every person responsible for the administration of justice to consider how their practices and procedures can be simplified, streamlined and made more user-friendly. And we must also foster a culture where these changes can be implemented. I know from my conversations with the other Chief Justices, with the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General that we all share these objectives. As Chief Justice of Ontario I will personally commit to review the Court of Appeal’s practices with a view to meeting these goals.
Chief Justice Strathy made reference to the infrastructure investments planned by the Ontario government, which are expected to improve court services.
The special interfaith ceremony, which has historically been held in the morning of the Opening of the Courts, was cancelled this year. The ceremony has been the focus of protests against the costs and delays of the court system, in particular in the area of family law.
Chief Justice Heather Smith of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice listed several initiatives by the court to improve family law:
- Family Rules initiatives to streamline family proceedings
- raising the profile of family law among future lawyers
- expanding the family law curricula in law schools
- supporting the Walsh Family Law Moot and a negotiation moot for 2015
Chief Justice Smith also addressed the most criticized delays in the civil system:
Last year’s unacceptable wait times for civil long motions and long trials are now “history”!
The proof is in the Toronto numbers: a year ago, the delay to a short civil motion was more than four months and the delay to a long civil motion was approximately 11 months. Justice Morawetz advises, and I am grateful and delighted to report, that both short and long civil motions are now available in a few short weeks. A year ago, the delay to certain long civil trials, such as a complex class action or commercial trial, was up to 22 months. Today, any long civil trial is available in six months or less.
When the Bar organizations spoke last year, we listened. RSJ Morawetz sought the Bar’s collaboration and the sound advice of his GTA judicial colleagues in tackling the core problems. New approaches were devised. New practice directions were developed to eliminate counterproductive booking practices and other inefficient procedures. Our real challenge for the coming year is to sustain these exceptional results – a goal that will be virtually impossible without a full judicial complement.
Despite these comments, many litigators in Toronto still indicate that motion and trial dates are difficult to obtain. The new decision on summary judgement motions may provide additional relief, but it is still being interpreted by the courts.
The practice directions referred here, and the changes implemented by the Superior Court, are simply not enough to address the inaccessibility of the courts to the general public, and further reforms will be required. Paola Lorrigio of The Globe canvassed some of the reactions to the Opening of the Courts:
Strathy’s message was hailed by the Ontario Bar Association, which represents the province’s lawyers and judges. The association has been working with the province to improve access to the justice system, board member Doug Downey said.
“Some procedures are put in place to solve another problem but they create a problem of their own,” said Downey, a practising lawyer in Barrie, Ont.
“If the chief justice is interested, and he certainly sounds like he is, in reviewing the system… sort of at a higher level, we may be able to rationalize some of those procedures,” he said.
Particular attention was given by Chief Justice Smith about the shooting in the Brampton courthouse on March 28, 2014:
The security of the public, staff, counsel and judges at our courthouses has weighed on everyone’s mind in the aftermath of the Brampton shooting. Our court’s Local Administrative Judges have worked to establish local court security committees at all 50 Superior Court locations across the province. Those committees are now established, have held meetings, and are developing the local court security plans required by the Police Services Act.
Like many court facilities throughout the province, Toronto has its own unique set of security issues. Chief of Police Bill Blair responded promptly to our concerns and some new security features are already in place in the Superior Court’s “Osgoode Precinct”. Others will be part of a pending holistic review.
Without doubt, we still have work to do! I assure you I will not compromise in meeting our shared objective to have timely and appropriate responses to any courthouse security issue.