I live in Etobicoke, Toronto’s western suburb. We used to have our own courts, right here in the west end. There were family and criminal courts at 40 East Mall, and a Landlord Tenant Board outpost on Dundas Street West. Just over the Humber River, in the original City of Toronto, there was a Small Claims Court on Keele Street (pictured above). People asserting civil rights, or facing criminal charges, could visit a courthouse in their own community.
Nowadays, there isn’t a single physical court or tribunal of any kind in Etobicoke. To get to a family court or small claims court, you have to go downtown to University Ave or Yonge Street. On the criminal side, next year, all six Toronto Ontario Court of Justice locations will be closed and consolidated into one 17-story mega-court on Centre Street. It will be part of a cluster of buildings around Queen and University that will now house almost all of the GTA’s courts — the Court of Appeal, all four Superior Court of Justice locations, as well as the Law Society, and (just a couple of blocks away) the Ministry of the Attorney General.
There is nothing local about the justice system in Toronto anymore. Everything is consolidated and centralized. The various systems supposed to serve the whole city, if not the whole province. Online justice is a big part of this trend.
Legal disputes involving Etobicoke neighbours, Etobicoke community institutions, or Etobicoke families would probably have been heard in Etobicoke thirty years ago. Now they go downtown, or else they go online.
The March of Progress?
So what? This column isn’t a nostalgic tribute to the good old days of local justice. Consolidation and centralization offer advantages in the field of justice, just as they do for hospitals or schools or supermarkets.
The government says that the new downtown mega-court will broaden access to specialized facilities — such as mental health courts – that cannot be maintained in smaller venues. It will also allow more efficient allocation of the many necessary professionals to cases, reducing delay. Anything that addresses the atrociously long waiting periods in our justice system is to be welcomed. Looking at the picture above, it is easy to imagine the inconveniences of the old neighbourhood courts.
Still, local institutions offer forms of convenience and embeddedness that don’t come naturally to centralized behemoths. Most obviously, it’s easier to travel to a court that is in your neighbourhood as opposed to one that’s 20 km away downtown. This may be especially true for public transit users who will face longer journeys. People who have a choice about whether to appear in court —including not only applicants in civil and administrative matters but also family members offering support for accused individuals— may simply decide not to do so.
Psychological Access to Justice
Too often, people allow their rights to be sacrificed because the formal justice mechanisms that would uphold them are inaccessible. They go without child support instead of using family court, they put up with substandard housing instead of using the landlord-tenant board, or they let themselves be defrauded instead of using small claims court.
Sometimes the barriers to justice are psychological, more than they are financial or geographical. People don’t use courts that they don’t know about, or that seem inaccessible or inappropriate for their needs.
The advantage in psychological accessibility goes not to the 17-story super court downtown, but rather to the neighbourhood institution that you see on a daily or weekly basis, and which your neighbours or family members have dealt with in the past.
Tradition and Change
If justice institutions must be centralized and consolidated, they should do what they can to make up for these shortcomings. Online justice can be well-designed, user-friendly and properly advertised — British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal has blazed the path. If so, it might outperform the old neighbourhood courts in every way, for those matters that truly require no in-person hearings.
Courts are for the people. They are not for the judges or lawyers or other people who work in them. I worry that clustering all of the remaining physical courts in a two block radius at the centre of elite downtown power might make them more insular, more lawyer-centric, and less accountable to court users.
As Edmund Burke said, our leaders must have both “a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve.” The old neighbourhood courts need not necessarily be revived. However, reformers should understand the merits along with the flaws of the old ways, and look for opportunities to preserve those merits in the new systems they create.