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2013 Opening of the Courts Speech

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Chief Justice Annemarie E. Bonkalo
Ontario Court of Justice
September 24, 2013

Madame et Monsieur les juges en chef, Votre Honneur – Je me joins au juge en chef Winkler et à la juge en chef Smith pour vous souhaiter la bienvenue ainsi qu’à tous nos invités à la cérémonie d’aujourd’hui.

The Ontario Court of Justice is not only the largest but also the busiest court in Canada.  Last year, our Court received — and disposed of — approximately 250,000 criminal cases. The Court heard from over 23,000 families in crisis which is about 49% of all of the child protection, Children’s Law Reform Act, and Family Law Act proceedings for the Province.  The Court also received over two million provincial offences and highway traffic charges in 2012.

Of course, the Ontario Court of Justice is not just about volume.  Our Court has been diligent about becoming more transparent about its work, actively seeking new ways to meet this goal.  For example, the Ontario Court of Justice leads in Canada in making statistics about court hearings available to the public.  In April 2013, we began posting quarterly criminal court data.  Our family and provincial offences court data have been posted since the end of July.  In March, we implemented a ‘Protocol Regarding the Use of Electronic Communication Devices in Court Proceedings’ which permits electronic recording devices in our courtrooms, unless there is a contrary court order in a particular case.  In April, we introduced a policy regarding access to digital recordings that permits the media to obtain copies of court recordings without first being required to obtain a court order.  These initiatives demonstrate the commitment of the Ontario Court of Justice to the principle of open court.

The Ontario Court also recognizes the need to demystify court processes for the public.  In the past year, judicial representatives accepted numerous invitations to talk with media students, community groups and law classes.  We provided information about how the judicial system operates and explained fundamental justice principles to our audiences.  We continue to make information more accessible to the public through enhancements to the Court’s website. 

The Ontario Court of Justice has a long history of flying into Ontario’s remote First Nations communities to conduct criminal and family court proceedings.  To better meet the needs of these communities, the Ontario Court and the Ministry of the Attorney General created a Joint Fly-in Court Working Group to identify practical ways to improve justice services in the far north.  Representatives of First Nations communities, legal aid, police services, as well as judiciary, Crowns, the private bar and court staff met to develop recommendations to improve the functioning of these courts.  I am pleased to report that work is already underway to address the operational enhancements identified in the report.

When litigants come to our family courts, we strive to offer them timely and efficient case oversight by specialized judges.  Despite our commitment to providing accessible family justice, the strikingly high number of unrepresented litigants in our family courts continues to pose challenges.  Families often need a range of social and legal support to address the effects of family breakdown.  These multi-disciplinary services can be difficult to locate – both for litigants and judges.  The numerous studies written about responding to family breakdown highlight the need for more coordinated, front-end, social and legal support services.  For our part, the Ontario Court will continue to identify new ways to simplify its court procedures and support improvements to building a network of multi-disciplinary services for families in crisis.

To respond to the noticeable reduction in the number of family law practitioners, the Ontario Court has been actively encouraging family law careers to future members of the bar.   Along with other key justice system participants, our Court has participated in the development of child protection curricula for law schools, launched the first family law moot in Canada, and expanded our articling student program to include family law rotations within our courthouses.

However, I remain very concerned by the inadequate progress we have made collectively in relation to youth justice.  The troubled youth who reach our courts often require the intervention of a wide range of supportive resources, both early on in their cases or at the sentencing stage.  These critical and time-sensitive supports are often not available to decision makers within the justice system.  Simply put, there are insufficient resources available to address the needs of our at-risk youth.  This, in turn, precludes the real possibility of sustained rehabilitation and crime prevention.  Our Court is but one part of the province’s youth justice system.  Any delay in developing and coordinating supports to at-risk youth is a disservice to our children, their futures and the future of the communities we serve.  So, again, I express this Court’s sincere commitment to work with our justice partners to help the youth of this province avoid a life of high-risk, criminal behaviour. We would like all young people to have the opportunity to become contributing and fulfilled members of our society.

While focusing on accessible justice, the Ontario Court continues to take steps to technologically modernize the Court’s operations.  In our criminal courts, we worked closely with the Court Services Division to develop and pilot electronic bail and probation orders that are prepared and provided to the accused person in court.  At each of our six pilot locations, we found that accused persons, together with sureties, families and friends, spent significantly less time waiting for their court orders to be finalized.  Planning is now underway to roll out these electronic bail and probation orders regionally across the Province, starting on November 4 in all courthouses in Toronto Region.  This work is an example of how a simple, innovative change can have a profound, systemic impact on the day-to-day realities of our busy courtrooms.  Similar innovations are also underway in our family courts.

Change is not only restricted to our Court’s procedures. We provide continuing and career-long education to our judiciary.  We invest significantly, in time and resources, to regularly updating the curriculum, teaching methods and materials we provide to the judiciary in our more than 50 educational programs held each year.  We are particularly proud of the work done over the past year to redesign the educational programming offered to our newly appointed justices of the peace.  To complement our foundational conferences, we are now exploring the use of new technology for education, ranging from “green” online program materials to online programming.

As we look ahead to the coming year, the Ontario Court of Justice is committed to working closely with the Ministry of the Attorney General and others to expand the use of video conferencing and to enhance our trial scheduling system.  Be assured that we know that we must be more aggressive about transforming our in-person, paper-driven system.  Also know that we are ready, willing and able to embrace change.

The Ontario Court of Justice works in partnership with our colleagues from the Court Services Division and the many municipal court administrations.  Our effectiveness in presiding over criminal, family and provincial offence matters is supported by the professionalism, commitment, expertise and diligence of these administrators.  On behalf of the 726 judicial officials of our Court, I extend our sincerest thanks to the staff and management who work with us each day.  I specifically extend our sincere gratitude to Lynne Wagner for leading the Court Services Division so creatively, enthusiastically and strategically.

This year has been marked by the transition of many of our senior administrative judiciary.  The Ontario Court of Justice welcomes our newest associate chief judges: Associate Chief Justice Faith Finnestad and Associate Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve.  My heartfelt thanks go to Justice Peter Griffiths and Justice John Payne for their hard work and dedication during their term as associate chief.  We also welcome our new regional senior judges: Regional Senior Justice Sharon Nicklas of the Central West Region; Regional Senior Justice Simon Armstrong of the Central East Region; Regional Senior Justice Hugh Fraser of the East Region; and Regional Senior Justice Timothy Lipson of Toronto Region.  We are also pleased to announce the appointment of our new Senior Justice of the Peace, Kathy-Lou Johnson.  In addition, for the Toronto Region, we welcome Regional Senior Justice of the Peace Warren Ralph.

On behalf of the Court, I thank former Regional Senior Justices Kathryn Hawke and Gregory Regis as well as former Regional Senior Justice of the Peace Diane McAleer and former Senior Justice of the Peace Cornelia Mews for their valuable contribution to the Ontario Court of Justice.

At this time, I would also like to congratulate Associate Chief Justice Hoy and Associate Chief Justice Marrocco on their appointments.  We look forward to working with you in the coming years.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the significant contribution that Chief Justice Warren Winkler has made to the justice system of Ontario – both as a judicial administrator and as a sitting judge.   Throughout his career, he has always led by example.  He has carried out his various roles fairly and justly. He embodies the professionalism, courtesy and proportionality that he has so effectively advocated as a judicial leader.   Thank you, Chief Justice Winkler, for your support, mentorship and leadership.  And, thank you for re-invigorating the Opening of the Courts day.  This day has evolved into a joyous tribute to those who work within the justice system.  We look forward to your attendance at this celebration in the years to come.

Merci.

Annemarie E. Bonkalo

Chief Justice