Opening of the Courts of Ontario for 2008

Chief Justice Warren K. Winkler
September 9, 2008

Welcome to the 2008 Opening of Courts ceremony. I am very pleased to be joined at this celebration by so many colleagues in our justice system.

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

We are honoured today by the presence of Chief Justice Heather Smith of the Superior Court of Justice; and Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo of the Ontario Court of Justice. Also present are Associate Chief Justice Dennis O’Connor of the Court of Appeal; Associate Chief Justice Douglas Cunningham of the Superior Court of Justice; Associate Chief Justice Peter Griffiths of the Ontario Court of Justice; and Associate Chief Justice John Payne of the Ontario Court of Justice/Coordinator of Justices of the Peace. Present with us today are many of our esteemed judicial colleagues, masters, and justices of the peace. As well, I am very pleased to welcome Attorney General for Ontario Chris Bentley and the new Law Society Treasurer, Derry Miller.

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Ontario’s justice system is as vast as the province itself. On any given day, judges may fly to remote First Nation communities in the North, rule on zoning issues in Ottawa, resolve custody matters in Hamilton, or come to a decision on a youth justice issue in Owen Sound. Thousands of problems, real life problems, will be dealt with today, and every other day, from one end of Ontario to the other.

Our justice system meets the needs of most people more or less effectively. Unfortunately, though, for a number of Ontarians, the justice system is becoming less and less accessible. An expanding group of Ontarians are finding that the system is often too expensive, too complicated and too slow in assisting them with their legal problems.

In our search to improve on our weaknesses, I often suggest that we should begin by looking to our successes. We have already taken concrete steps to improving access to justice. Over 60% of civil lawsuits in Ontario are heard either in Small Claims Court or under simplified procedural rules. With the anticipated implementation of the Osborne Report, we can expect that even more civil matters will be dealt with under these more straight-forward, proportionate and affordable processes, and that other reforms will be implemented to streamline our often too cumbersome civil litigation process.

Family law matters which are now understood to be complex, social problems that require multi-disciplinary and co-ordinated responses must attract the resources they require. Indeed, the pace of new funding must increase, in recognition of the fact that judicial intervention is only part of what is needed to cope with family break-down and child protection. There is a large appetite for review, reform and advancement in this area and the time has arrived to implement a properly serviced unified family court system that meets the needs of all Ontarians. This will require collaboration between both levels of government, the Bench, the Bar and service providers. I hope that the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of Ontario have a chance to begin their discussions after today’s ceremony.

In our criminal system, there are active debates and important inquiries underway aimed at improving pre-trial and in-court procedures without sacrificing fairness. Those who work so hard in the criminal justice system must re-double their efforts to ensure that the practice and procedure in criminal courts promotes timely access to a fair and impartial resolution. Both the litigants and the public expect this, and they deserve nothing less.

In short, I applaud the momentum toward reform. More importantly, I am convinced that our collective appetite for justice system enhancements that seek to eradicate inequality and barriers to justice in our laws and legal processes is the true strength of our legal system. Fair, timely and affordable resolution of cases is not beyond our grasp. On the contrary, with the continued commitment, professionalism and leadership of the Bar, the Bench, administration, law enforcement officials, and the myriad of social-justice agencies that support litigants, we are well positioned to improve our day-to-day service to the public, and to promote a system that meaningfully protects the rights and freedoms enunciated in our Constitution.

I would like to speak briefly about the achievements of the Court of Appeal over the last year. I am proud to say, there have been many.

This past year, a “Cameras in the Courtroom” Pilot Project was launched, allowing live proceedings to be web-cast over the Court’s website. Viewers had the opportunity to see a variety of appeals. There were more than 18,000 hits on the website and the public feedback was very positive.

The Court of Appeal was also one of the pilot project test sites for a new digital recording system. The pilot project was a success at our Court and has now been implemented, on a permanent basis, in all of our courtrooms, as well as at the inmate sittings held in Kingston.

Importantly, the legal assistance programs available to unrepresented litigants remained strong throughout the year. These programs were put in place to provide free duty counsel to inmates on inmate appeals, free counsel or amicus curiae at mental health appeals, and pro bono counsel to qualified litigants in civil appeals. Though not to be confused with the profound importance of a well-funded, province-wide legal aid system, these initiatives have improved the quality of legal representation for those who would not otherwise have such support, and are of invaluable assistance to the Court in ensuring that unrepresented litigants are treated fairly. In addition, the plain-language, self-help manuals continue to be available to assist litigants to navigate the appeal process. Together, these initiatives have aided litigants to process their appeals more simply, more justly and more effectively.

On behalf of the judiciary in Ontario, I am pleased to report that through the great efforts and collaboration of the judiciary and the provincial government, a judicial information technology organization that is accountable to the judiciary has been created. This separate organization – the first of its kind in Canada – is responsible for the management and control of all judicial information. As a result, the judiciary has its own e-mail network, internet access, databases, and document storage and retrieval systems. This ensures that all judicial information is securely segregated from government information and remains independent.

In terms of the workload of the Court of Appeal over the last year, the volume of cases heard by the Court has remained steady. Due to the great efforts and dedication of the judges and administration within the Court, litigants continue to be able to obtain timely sittings of the Court. The judgments of the Court continue to be delivered within the targeted six month period, except where exceptional circumstances arise.

In addition to their demanding sitting schedules and judgment writing responsibilities, members of our Court have commendably participated in a wide-variety of educational activities – nationally and internationally. Over the past year, lawyers and judges across Canada, China, Ethiopia, Russia, Tanzania, Spain, Rwanda, Nigeria and the Ukraine have had the benefit of learning from many of my distinguished colleagues on the Court of Appeal.

Members of our Court have also shown leadership on a range of justice sector committees, including the Civil Rules Committee, the Family Rules Committee, the Chief Justices Information Technology Committee, the Accessibility Committee, the Access to Court Information Committee, and the Justice and the Media Panel – just to mention a few.

The list of achievements does not end there. A number of members of our Court were also asked to lead significant justice-related inquiries. Justice Stephen Gouge is currently leading the Inquiry into Paediatric Forensic Pathology, and Justice Harry LaForme was named the Chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As well, in the Spring of 2007, Justice Robert Sharpe was appointed by the International Commission of Jurists to be on the Eminent Jurists Panel that reviewed the precipitous suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. It is no surprise that our esteemed colleagues have been called upon to deliberate over such important, systemic public reviews.

The Court of Appeal for Ontario now consists of 21 full-time judges and two supernumerary judges. Over the past year, our Court saw the retirement of two highly-respected jurists, The Honourable Roy McMurtry and the Honourable Jean Marc Labrosse.

Sadly, the legal community suffered the lost of a great jurist and gentleman, with the passing of Justice Marvin Catzman. His achievements were many. He will, of course, be remembered for the wisdom which is manifest in his countless, thoughtfully reasoned decisions, which will live on as an invaluable contribution to the common law. His legacy will also include the influence of his great collegiality, warmth and courtesy which lives on as an inspiration and example for all of those who had the great fortune to work with him, or had the privilege of appearing before him.

The legal community also suffered the loss of a prominent former judge of the Court of Appeal, the Honourable George Finlayson who passed away last spring.

Over the course of the year, my colleagues and I have also happily welcomed two new members to the Court of Appeal family. I am pleased to report that both Justice David Watt and Justice Gloria Epstein have seamlessly transitioned into their new roles on the Court.

In closing, I return to my opening comments about the importance of the day-to-day work and ongoing innovations of the various participants in the justice system. Together, we have the foresight, the wisdom and the courage to dismantle barriers to justice and to promote a system that meaningfully and proudly upholds the rule of law. Individually, we have the obligation to ensure that we do not let a day go by where we have not in some way truly served the public. I look forward to a progressive, dynamic and collaborative year ahead.

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