Report of the Chief Justice of Ontario Upon the Opening of the Courts of Ontario for 2004

Chief Justice R. Roy McMurtry

Welcome and Introduction

Chief Justices, colleagues, Mr. Attorney, Mr. Treasurer, distinguished representatives of the bar, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to express the warmest of welcomes to everyone here this afternoon.

Je souhaite une bienvenue très chaleureuse à tous ceux qui sont venu assister à cet evenement si important dans la vie de notre province.

The opening of the courts represents, I believe, a unique opportunity to bring together members of the judiciary, bar, law enforcement, courts administrators and the public. Your presence here this afternoon is an important reminder of the crucial role played by the administration of justice as the vital and irreplaceable foundation of a democratic society.

I am very pleased, of course to be joined on the dais by Chief Justice Smith of the Superior Court of Justice and Chief Justice Lennox of the Ontario Court of Justice who preside over the largest trial courts in Canada.

I am also very pleased that we are joined today with so many of our colleagues from the Court of Appeal, the Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Justice, as well as a number of Masters, Small Claims Court Judges, Justices of the Peace and legal and administrative staff from all of our courts and the Ministry of the Attorney General.

I would also like to recognize the presence this afternoon of those representing many important legal associations together with our special guests as follows:

I would like firstly to report on the work of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, followed by some brief general observations with respect to important initiatives related to the administration of justice in Ontario. My remarks will be followed by reports from Chief Justice Smith and Chief Justice Lennox in relation to their courts.

The Court of Appeal now consists of nineteen full-time and four supernumerary judges.

All of the members of our court were delighted to welcome Justice Robert Blair to our court last month. Before his appointment to the court, Justice Blair was a member of the Superior Court of Justice since 1991 also serving in the very demanding post of the Regional Senior Justice for Toronto since 1999 until his appointment to our court.

I would like to take this opportunity to again thank our former colleagues who retired this past year for their major contributions to the work of the court. Justice John Morden served as a judge for 30 years including 25 years on Court of Appeal. Justice Mac Austin served 5 years as a trial judge and 11 years on the Court of Appeal. They both will be much missed but we are confident that they will continue to make important contributions as members of law firms to the administration of justice for many years to come.

Workload of the Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal continues to be by far the busiest appellate court in Canada. In the past year, over 1,000 appeals were heard. The appeals are becoming lengthier and significantly more complex. These appeals do not include motions and the many other matters related to the court that involve our judges. For example, the members of our court also are very active in educational seminars, judging moot courts, giving speeches and serving as advisors in relation to the administration of justice in developing nations.

I would also like to publicly congratulate Justice Robert Sharpe for his very important and successful recently published biography of Chief Justice Dickson, and to congratulate Justice Eleanore Cronk on being awarded the Advocates' Society medal for 2003, Justice Rosalie Abella for her receipt of the international justice prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation and also for being awarded the human relations award of the Canadian Council Of Christians And Jews, and Justice James Macpherson and Justice Eileen Gillese as members of the Court of Appeal panel that was named the Globe & Mail's Nation Builders of the Year for 2003.

Six years ago there were about 1,600 civil cases perfected and waiting to be heard. That figure has been reduced to approximately 250 as of today. The hearing of non-expedited civil appeals is now four to six months from perfection. The time frame relative to expedited appeals, family law related appeals and appeals delaying the progress of ongoing trials has been reduced to a period of about three months.

In criminal appeals the time between perfection and hearing has stabilized at four to five months. However, a substantial increase in the number of applications for leave to introduce fresh evidence continues to cause considerable delay in a growing number of appeals. I am also pleased to report that, absent exceptional circumstances, reserved judgments are released within a period of six months after argument. Given the seriousness and complexity of the cases which come before the court, the timely release of judgments is a credit to the hard work and dedication of the judges of our court.

Mediation

In the area of mediation, the initiatives developed by Justices Weiler and Labrosse continue to result in successful pre-hearing mediations which produce both significant cost saving for the litigants in family law matters and a reduction of the emotional trauma which is so often regrettably a part of family law litigation.

The court is also concerned with the number of criminal appeals in which the appellant is unrepresented by counsel. Such cases carry with them additional administrative and judicial involvement to ensure fairness and a timely resolution. One initiative this past year has been the tracking and expediting of all inmate appeals in which the sentence was less than two years. Similarly, the court and particularly Justice Marc Rosenberg has worked to expand a duty counsel program so that unrepresented inmates will be provided with some legal assistance. We have received the full co-operation of legal aid Ontario and a number of criminal lawyers who, in the best tradition of the bar have volunteered their time to assist unrepresented inmates.

I am pleased to mention as well that under the auspices of Pro Bono Law Ontario, a program is being developed to assist unrepresented litigants involved in civil appeals. This program will, I expect, begin its operation later this year.

The recommendations of the committee headed by Justices Charron and Macpherson in criminal solicitor appeals have been implemented with the result that criminal appeals are being perfected and heard in a much more timely fashion. One of the significant causes of delay was the problem in obtaining a transcript within a reasonable time period. With the commitment and support of the Ministry of the Attorney General, a standard of 90 days was agreed upon for the completion of transcripts and that standard is now being met in most cases.

In November 2003, the Court of Appeal for Ontario engaged in its first outreach program, travelling to London, Ontario for a two-day series of round tables, meetings, receptions and dinners with members of the judiciary, legal profession, court administrators and law school deans and law teachers in southwestern Ontario. The outreach appeared to be enthusiastically welcomed by our colleagues in southwestern Ontario and we plan to make it an annual event with the court visiting Ottawa in 2004.

I would like to take this opportunity also to publicly thank all of my colleagues on the court for their continuing dedication to the resolution of appeals in a just and timely fashion and as well to thank the administrative, secretarial and legal staff for their continuing commitment and dedication to the work of our court.

Ontario Justice Education Network

Last year, I detailed the inauguration of the Ontario Justice Education Network or OJEN and I would like to thank the hundreds of judges, crown attorneys, lawyers, legal aid representatives and others who are volunteering their time with the courtrooms and classrooms project throughout the province, giving tens of thousands of students and others the opportunity for an increased understanding of the administration of justice. Such initiatives also include law day programs, mock trials, and judge and lawyer shadowing by students.

This year, law week in Ontario will start on April 13th and will have the theme “diversity: celebrating your right to be unique”.

In 2003, the highly successful summer law institute program for secondary school teachers was expanded from one institute to five; with institutes taking place in Windsor, Ottawa, London, Sudbury and Toronto. These collaborative ventures were presented with the support of the legal community, law schools and universities and the courts. The summer law institutes provided hundreds of high school teachers with important opportunities for dialogue and learning with judges, lawyers and law teachers.

“Values of the justice system”, an educational resource based on key values was developed by leading educators and distributed to all high schools within Ontario is available to all teachers on OJEN's website.

Update, the OJEN newsletter is being launched this month which will detail the many public legal education initiatives occurring throughout Ontario.

I would like to again thank the law foundation for providing the funding for OJEN's excellent director Taivi Lobu and her staff.

Pro Bono Law Ontario

In my view, Pro Bono Law Ontario is the most important access to justice initiative since the adoption of the legal aid plan in 1967. By organizing and supporting the pro bono efforts of law firms, law associations and legal clinics across the province, PBLO works to ensure that all aspects of the profession, private and public, are working together to address the unmet legal needs of Ontario's most vulnerable citizens.

PBLO's major supporters include Legal Aid Ontario, the Law Foundation of Ontario and the hundreds of lawyers who volunteer in PBLO projects.

Since PBLO began brokering partnerships between the private bar, legal aid providers, and public service groups there appears to be developing a marked cultural change in the legal community across the province.

For example, lawyers from the largest law firms in Toronto to the sole practitioner in Sault Ste. Marie – are working with community legal clinics, and members of their communities to address the unmet legal needs of children, the elderly, survivors of domestic abuse and new immigrants to name but a few groups benefiting from pro bono legal assistance.

Since January 2002, PBLO has trained over 300 volunteer lawyers who have provided pro bono services to over 1,300 individuals and charitable organizations. 2004 will see the launch of more than a dozen new pro bono initiatives. Law firms are partnering with community organizations and speciality legal clinics in projects that will protect children's rights, defend HIV+ or disabled citizens from discrimination and help aboriginal artists earn a viable living. In communities from Windsor to Thunder Bay, law associations are working with community legal clinics to provide wills and powers of attorney to low-income elderly individuals.

I am pleased to chair the PBLO advisory board and I would like to thank the Law Foundation of Ontario for its significant financial support of Pro Bono Law Ontario.

I would also like to take this opportunity of thanking Lynn Burns, the Executive Director of Pro Bono Law Ontario for her continuing commitment and dedication.

It is worth repeating the statement of the late Chief Justice Brian Dickson with respect to the importance of prop bono initiatives:

“it can help connect the lawyers who are sought after by the most privileged in society with claim to justice to those who enjoy these privileges least.”

Access to legal advice and access to justice remains one of the essential bulwarks of our society and our individual liberties. Our freedoms are at best fragile and they depend on the ability of every citizen to assert in a court or a tribunal his or her rights under the law, and to receive sound legal advice as to rights and obligations. Our laws and freedoms will only be as strong as the protection that they afford to the most vulnerable members of our community. In affording this protection, legal assistance does make a deep and essential contribution to our social fabric and indeed to our very way of life.

Youth at Risk

In conclusion, I would like to repeat what I stated last year that the reality that the administration of justice will never be able to deal with the causes of criminal and other anti-social behaviour. Indeed, the courts provide daily witness to the tragedies represented by young people in particular at risk given their negative environments, lack of education and lack of opportunity.

It should also be pretty obvious that our courts alone will never be able to provide a social justice order based on caring, compassion and social justice.

As we begin a new year, we should therefore reflect on the fact that many of the causes of our social ills are simply related to poverty. As estimated 200,000 Canadians are homeless and 1.7 million families are in “core housing need”. Every winter a few of these people freeze to death. Thousands more develop ailments that those with warm secure homes will never know; close to 800,000 Canadians use food banks every month, forty-one percent of them are children.

While the poor and friendless may often be out of political fashion they are never without human needs. We also know that the poor and vulnerable may live in a free country but that it is often difficult for them to feel free.

I would like to conclude by thanking everyone associated with the administration of justice for their commitment to their daily responsibilities and to wish you all a very happy 2004.

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