Opening of the Courts of Ontario for 2018
Chief Justice George Strathy 2018
On behalf of Chief Justice Heather Smith and Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve, I welcome you to the Opening of Courts for 2018.
It is a great privilege to preside at this ceremony, and an honour to join all of you - leaders of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; leaders of the bar; administrators; and members of our law enforcement community - in celebrating the work of the courts, the rule of law and the administration of justice. And it is a particular honour this year to do so in the presence of both Her Honour, our Head of State, and our recently appointed Attorney General and Minister responsible for francophone affairs, the Honourable Caroline Mulroney.
Within our constitutional democracy, we all have distinct roles to play. On this occasion, we come together in recognition of our common objective: our shared commitment to maintaining and improving the administration of justice for all Ontarians.
Despite my deep appreciation for this ceremony, I have always been a bit perplexed by why we call today the “Opening of Courts”. In a recent conversation with my daughter, I told her we would be celebrating the Opening of Courts this week; she looked at me quizzically, paused, and then asked me if the courts had been closed.
So, why do we call this the “Opening of Courts”? After all, the courts are always open - they don’t close.
The answer, perhaps, lies in the origins of this ceremony. The Opening of Courts is derived from an English tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages. The English judges start their legal year in October, with what they call the “Michaelmas Term.” The judges return from a two-month break by marching in procession from the Temple Bar to Westminster Abbey for a religious service and a breakfast hosted by the Lord Chancellor.
While we do not close our courts in Ontario, I do think we have many reasons to celebrate our “open” courts. The “openness” of our courts is, in fact, a cornerstone of our constitutional democracy. The Supreme Court of Canada has observed that it “guarantees the integrity of judicial processes” and “is integral to public confidence in the administration of justice.”
Courts are open in many senses of the word.
Courts are of course physically open. Judges, justices of the peace and court staff are available day and night, seven days a week, to deal with urgent matters. The courts operate throughout the year and, indeed, as my colleagues can tell you, they and their judges have been working full out to deal with the challenges of ensuring that all legal proceedings are conducted in a timely way.
Not only are the courts physically open, but the work of judges and courts is conducted in the open. The courts are open to the public, not just to lawyers. Every day, members of the public walk through the doors of this courthouse and of courthouses throughout the province to participate in the administration of justice and to observe justice being done.
The courts’ decision-making is also open and transparent. Cases are heard in public and judges’ decisions are announced in public. Judges must explain their decisions with reasons, and those decisions are open to public examination and criticism. Our decisions are open to appeal. The media, some of whom are present today, play a pivotal and constitutionally-protected role in publicizing and commenting on legal proceedings. This ensures an informed debate about matters of public importance. And that debate is the sign of a healthy democracy.
But there are some impediments to openness. Let me mention two. First, to be truly open, our courthouses and courtrooms must be accessible to those with differing abilities. New courthouses are being built to modern accessibility standards. However, older courthouses, including the one I work in, are still not fully accessible, and more work needs to be done.
Second, the openness and transparency are meaningless without access to the courts.
Access to Justice
The court system remains inaccessible to many Ontarians, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society. In many instances, their legal problems intersect with their economic, family, health and social issues.
Through the hard work of many in this room, progress is being made. Both levels of government and the two trial courts are cooperating to expand the reach of Ontario’s Unified Family Court. Family law affects more Ontarians than any other area of law. Unified Family Courts reduce legal costs and complexity for families who are experiencing the stress and turmoil of family breakdown. Expansion of the Unified Family Courts is one of the single most effective ways we can improve access to justice.
Court of Appeal
I turn now to some observations about the Court of Appeal.
Like most institutions in our community, the Court of Appeal for Ontario has undergone significant change in the past decade. What has not changed is this court’s reputation for excellence in its jurisprudence and for providing clear, thoughtful and fair decisions for litigants and jurisprudential guidance for courts and the legal community throughout this province.
Since last September, five judges have retired: Justices Karen Weiler, Robert Blair, Eleanore Cronk, John Laskin, and Gloria Epstein. Two more will do so in the next month: Justices Jean MacFarland and Harry LaForme. These seven judges have helped to define this court in the 21st century. Their collective experiences and wisdom have enriched our jurisprudence and have cemented the reputation of the Court of Appeal for Ontario as one of the leading appellate courts in the common law world.
New judges who have joined the court in recent years have brought new expertise and fresh perspectives to the bench which will continue to shape it in the years to come. This past year, Justice Ian Nordheimer and Justice Alison Harvison Young have joined our court from the Superior Court of Justice. They come to our court with established reputations for being among our nation’s finest jurists and we are delighted to have them as colleagues. We are anticipating that there will be further appointments in the coming year.
With the support of the Attorney General and the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Court of Appeal is continuing with its project to replace our aging case management system with a state-of-the-art computer records management system. The new system, when fully implemented, will allow lawyers and the public to file more materials electronically and will allow the court to provide more efficient access to our records and information, thus enhancing our accessibility and openness.
We at the Court of Appeal are fortunate to have the support of an exceptional administrative staff, led by our Registrar Daniel Marentic, and a skilled and experienced staff of lawyers and law clerks, led by Falguni Debnath, our Senior Legal Officer.
In closing, I would like to express my gratitude to all in attendance and to all of those who dedicate themselves to the administration of justice. I began my remarks stating some puzzlement about opening courts which never close. But, despite the fact that the courts remain open all year, there is no doubt there is more work we can do to open our courts, in every sense of this word. We need to increase access to justice, we need to increase physical accessibility in our courthouses, and we need to enhance the public’s understanding and awareness of what we do. I hope you will join me in using this ceremony as an opportunity to re-commit ourselves to an ongoing project; an ongoing project of Opening our Courts.