Opening of the Courts – 2010

Remarks of Chief Justice Heather Smith

September 14, 2010

Thank you, merci, Chief Justice Winkler.

Chief Justices, judicial colleagues, Your Honour, Mr. Attorney for Canada, Mr. Attorney for Ontario, Madam Treasurer, distinguished judicial guests, distinguished members of the Bar, ladies and gentlemen:

This well-ensconced, annual Opening of the Courts is a wonderful opportunity for concise reflection by each Chief Justice on the challenges and achievements of the preceding year. C’est une réflexion importante en ce qu’elle nous fournit des perspectives fraîches et une bouffée d’optimisme à la revue de nos réalisations. This opportunity entreats us, each year, to fully and carefully take stock of our courts’ most recent progress towards improving the administration of justice. It invites us to share, in a unique way, our accomplishments with the public we all serve. Apart from this special event, the judicial aspect of the administration of justice is generally remote from the Bar and the public – but deliberately so – to protect judicial independence.

To get right to the point of this brief, but much appreciated opportunity to speak directly to the Bar and the public, I am pleased to tell you, first, about the changes to our Court.

During the past year we have welcomed a new Regional Senior Judge – Justice Edward Ducharme – to our Southwest Region. He has replaced Justice Lynne Leitch who completed her term as RSJ for that region. I am grateful to Justice Leitch for her yeoman’s service over the preceding six years to the Council of Regional Senior Judges. Justice Leitch stepped down just in time to assume Presidency of the Canadian Superior Court Judges Association.

At the end of July, Justice Mary Jane Hatton stepped down from her two-year term as Senior Family Judge and we currently await the Minister’s appointment of a new Senior Family Judge. I truly thank Justice Hatton for her extraordinary and highly successful efforts to meet the many challenges inherent in family proceedings. I will provide further details of these accomplishments shortly.

Our Court is large, with 242 full-time and, currently, 75 supernumerary judges, all of whom sit in eight regions across the vast geography of the province. They are assisted in some areas of the Court’s work by 22 traditional and Case Management Masters and four sitting Deputy Registrars in Bankruptcy. In a large organization like our Court, any initiative for change will only be achieved in a measured and careful way. The pace of change may be perceived, by some, as simply too protracted; but, in large and foundational institutions, well-executed progress, not speed, must be the gauge of successful change. If I can borrow a recently-coined phrase from the economic sector, over the past year I have seen some very healthy “green shoots” on a number of important Court initiatives. These are the visible aspects of projects that are aimed solely at achieving more efficient and effective service by the Court to the public.

Civil Proceedings

In the area of civil proceedings, the Court has been building on the January 2010 implementation of the Osborne Recommendations in the Civil Rules of Procedure.

The Small Claims branch of our Court now has the jurisdiction to decide cases up to $25,000. The pool of more than 400 Deputy Judges is a superbly capable group of barristers, who provide the most efficient, timely and affordable venue, that handles just under 40% of the civil claims in the province. We are incredibly indebted to these members of the Bar for their very significant and valuable service to the public.

This year the Superior Court has taken meaningful steps to strongly support the effective use of the Rule 76 Simplified Rules procedure, which is now available for claims up to $100,000. We want to encourage the Bar and the public to use this procedure, because it provides certainty, timeliness and real affordability through its short timelines, limited discovery, proscription of interlocutory proceedings and no-cost pre-trials.

The Toronto Region’s strong force of 15 Case Management Masters, are well-poised to bolster the Simplified Rules procedure, due to their highly developed skill sets. In April, 2010, the Court extended the benefits of Case Management Masters’ expertise to Brampton and Milton in the Central West Region, and to Newmarket in the Central East Region, where litigants have never had access to Masters’ services. Masters are now available two weeks per month, in each of those locations, to conduct timely pre-trial conferences and quickly move Simplified Rules cases – up to $100,000 – either to resolution or to trial readiness.

Family Proceedings

Over the past year, the Court has taken huge strides towards improving the up-front services for family proceedings. Under the extremely able leadership of former Senior Family Justice Hatton, the Court partnered with the Ministry of the Attorney General to implement several excellent initiatives.

Ontarians’ have a pressing need for an effective and efficient family law process in all 50 Superior Court locations across the province. Of those 50 sites, only the 17 Family Court Branch sites have had the advantage of the front-end services that are vital to an effective process. These services include a staffed Family Law Information Centre or FLIC, on-site mediation services, legal advice counsel and duty counsel. Our court’s aim is to ensure that these necessary front-end services are available to all litigants.

Our Court’s Family Law Strategic Plan, which we unveiled two years ago, established Mandatory Information Programs as one of the Plan’s cornerstones. These mandatory sessions have been a very effective part of the Toronto family law process for many years under Rule 8.1 of the Family Law Rules. In June of 2010, under Justice Hatton’s leadership, and with the great assistance of the Ministry of the Attorney General, mandatory information sessions were implemented in Brampton and Milton, by Practice Direction posted on the Court’s website: http://www.ontariocourts.ca/scj/. The Court is so pleased that the Attorney General supports the Court’s ultimate goal of having mandatory information programs available across the province. Newmarket in the Central East Region and Ottawa in the East Region – both Family Court sites – are poised to replace their existing voluntary information sessions with the new mandatory information program in the very near future.

I must also congratulate the Family Law Bar in Central West and Central East on two accounts: (1) for its dedication to improving the family law process and (2) for joining in the Superior Court’s vision for comprehensive front-end services. In a very tangible way, the Bar has been stellar in its commitment to this vision, by supporting a further Court initiative—the DRO Program. Senior family law lawyers in Brampton and Milton have given generously of their valuable time to perform the role of Dispute Resolution Officers, or DROs, to resolve family cases at a very early stage or ensure that cases are judge-ready. These DROs provide a further indispensable service, as all “motions to change” in those centres are referred to the DROs for possible resolution, as a first step.

Senior family lawyers in Newmarket – on their own accord – also expressed a similar keenness, and implemented the DRO program in their centre. Now, the Barrie Bar and the Durham Bar, with strong local judicial leadership in these centres, are following suit.

I want to convey my sincere appreciation to every one of the dedicated members of the Bar who have supported our Court’s initiatives in family law. Your contribution to the public is very important and your expert assistance – vital to this Court.

Criminal Proceedings

In the criminal area of the Court’s jurisdiction, the Court has continued to hone the mandatory pre-trial conference process to a point of real success. We attempt to have our most experienced judges conduct criminal pre-trial conferences in every Court location. Our most successful model—particularly in large-volume sites—entails a few designated judges exclusively conducting pre-trial conferences for a period of up to six months. We have learned that the Crown and counsel in these centres have responded very positively to the consistent expectations of these dedicated and skilled judges. The timely resolution of many cases that would have otherwise slowed criminal dockets has been the excellent result.

In a different vein, the Court is very close to finalizing amendments to the Summary Conviction Appeal Rules. The changes revise timelines for steps in that appeal process and more closely align them with the rules for other criminal appeals.

General Issues

As I indicated at the beginning, the Court has few opportunities to speak directly to the public and the bar. One further opportunity is the publication of the Court’s biannual Report. Our first report, in 2008, focussed on the Court’s important history as the constitutionally guaranteed superior court of record for the province. The second edition of our Court’s report will be published later this fall in hard copy – but more importantly, online, on the Superior Court of Justice’s website: http://www.ontariocourts.ca. Aside from presenting the statistical measures of our court’s heavy workload, the upcoming report will have a distinctly regional focus. I hope the public and members of the bar will take this further opportunity to learn more about the Court’s full agenda.

On a different note, members of the Bar or the public sometimes express dismay that the Court may hear their law suits, but it doesn’t hear their pleas regarding the administrative side – that is, issues related to the court process. For example, we know that the Bar would like an increased level of court technology, to support the litigant and legal counsel needs, both in and out of the courtroom. The wish list I often hear about includes items like the capacity for electronic document filing, online access to court files and online bookings for motions.

Any endeavour of that nature requires the Attorney General’s collaboration with the court, quite simply because the Attorney General has the constitutional responsibility for the administration of justice. However, in this regard the news this year is also extremely positive. Attorney General Bentley continues to lead his Ministry in a very collaborative and constructive relationship with the Court. In particular, we have embarked together on a project that will deliver, over the next several years, a comprehensive technology-based system for the courts’ work.

I am confident that the Attorney General’s plans for this system include meaningful consultation with the Bar, as well as the courts, on those “public-facing” aspects of the system that will engage or affect the Bar. Both the hope and the expectation for this technology is that it will be a platform for all facets of court’s business; that it will touch each step in the court process, from the first court filing to the final judicial decision. I continue to express my deep appreciation for the way in which the Attorney General and his Ministry support our court’s priorities.

However, we do have remaining challenges – in particular the impediments to securing vitally necessary facilities for our Court’s judges in a number of locations. Brampton, where our judges face an increasingly heavy criminal workload, presents an acute challenge. Despite some recent issues, the Superior Court continues to rely on the previous assurances of the Ministry of the Attorney General that the critical judicial chambers situation in Brampton will be adequately addressed by the end of 2011.

I am confident that Attorney General Bentley will continue to work with the Court to meet these facilities challenges, in the same energetic and positive way that he has for the Mandatory Information Program, the DRO initiatives for family cases and the development of a new court technology platform.

I also want to express my continuing gratitude to the members of our Court’s Regional Senior Judges Council, including Associate Chief Justice Douglas Cunningham, for their remarkable assistance to me in leading the Court. Their own leadership, and the tremendous daily efforts of each of our judges in conducting fair hearings and rendering just results, are what sustain the public respect for our institution.

We continue to take great pride in the quality of the judgments rendered by this Court. L’année passée a été une année productive et pleine de bonnes nouvelles. Je suis persuadée qu’il en sera de même l’an prochain. We look forward to the coming year to achieve even more success in meeting the needs of Ontarians who rely on our court for justice.

Merci. Thank you.