Opening of the Courts of Ontario for 2009

Chief Justice Warren K. Winkler
September 14, 2009

Welcome to the 2009 Opening of Courts ceremony.

Aujourd’hui, nous célébrons le début d’une autre année de session des tribunaux, de causes judiciaires et d’initiatives de réforme du système de justice. Nous avons tant à célébrer. Je suis heureux que de nombreux collègues se joignent à moi dans notre système de justice.

The Opening of Courts ceremony provides those of us who work in the justice system with an opportunity to reflect upon our successes, and to consider areas in need of improvement. It is a time to ask ourselves whether we are furthering our most important goal, to ensure that Ontarians have a fair and open justice system. If the answer is anything other than “yes”, quite simply, we are failing in our collective obligation to maintain a free and democratic society.

Fairness goes to the heart of our legal system. It is about ensuring affordable, impartial and accessible legal services for the public. It is about providing meaningful procedural protections and sustainable processes that allow Ontarians to pursue their legal rights, free from barriers and inequities.

The open-court concept is also a fundamental principle. It is the driving force behind the provision of public access to judicial proceedings, court information and reasons for judgment. An open and transparent justice system promotes public confidence in the day-to-day events that transpire in our courts.

Ensuring both fairness and openness in our legal system comes at a cost. In part, that cost is financial; in part, the cost is one of commitment, motivation and innovation by all of the participants within the system.

Priority must be given to infrastructure projects that respond to our substantial criminal caseloads. To ensure that cases are dealt with in a timely manner, we must have adequate courthouse facilities. In particular, Toronto needs more criminal courtrooms to avoid a bottleneck in concluding criminal trials. Without the necessary bricks and mortar, we risk intractable delays and potential miscarriages of justice. A fair and open court system also demands a modern technological infrastructure. Anachronistic methods of doing business that do not take advantage of available electronic court information are inefficient for the administration of justice. They can also be costly to the users of the system, and inconsistent with the expectations of the public in this electronic age.

Importantly, we must also ensure that litigants have the ability to meaningfully mount an effective claim or defence. Litigants need access to competent representation, unbiased decision-making and well-functioning procedures. This is of particular concern in criminal matters. We must strive to ensure due process, and at the same time keep costs and delays to a minimum.

Similar considerations, of course, apply to the family law system. However, since last year’s Opening of Courts ceremony, in which all three courts noted the need to enhance access to family services and streamlined rules of procedures, progress has been made. I am pleased to advise that there has been a marked renewal of commitment in this area. Active work is underway to address these issues by a number of motivated committees. In addition, the Ministry of the Attorney General has created a new, full-time legal position dedicated to augment the effectiveness of the Family Rules Committee.

The 2009 Justice Summit also promises to be an important forum for furthering insights and consensus on our next, restorative steps for family litigants. While much of the work is still in progress, I am convinced that real strides will be made in this practice area over the next year, and in the years to come.

The civil justice system has also made great progress this past year with the adoption of the Osborne Report recommendations. Focusing on proportionality, the new Rules of Procedure come into force on January 1, 2010. These rules emphasize the practical importance of ensuring that our court processes further dispute-resolution and reduce costs. For example, counsel must conduct litigation (including limited discoveries) in a manner that is proportionate to the matters in dispute.

At the same time, there is recognition that courts must reward those who effectively and professionally represent their clients, and actively discourage those who do not. In this context, proportionality is directly linked to access to fair and affordable justice. I commend these civil justice reforms. They are a significant advancement towards improved access to the justice system. I predict that the future will bring even further simplifications to our court procedures. I turn now to the activities of the Court of Appeal for Ontario.

Over the last year, the volume of cases heard by the Court remained relatively steady, although over the past five years, the Court has noted a modest decline in the number of appeals filed in civil matters.

Litigants continue to get their appeals heard in a timely manner. And, the judgments of the Court are, with few exceptions, delivered within the targeted six-month period from the hearing.

In recognition of the important role that the media plays as the “eyes and ears of the public”, and to improve the ability of the media to accurately report on cases, the Court of Appeal, through its Media Committee, has recently taken the following steps:

  • Posting a 60-day list of upcoming appeals on our website,
  • Distributing E-notices of decisions and publication bans via RSS feed, and posting this information on a special page of the Court’s website,
  • Providing three days’ advance notice for decisions that will likely have heightened media interest,
  • Posting the names of designated media contacts on our website, and expediting counter-service for the media,
  • Continuing to provide media lock-ups for extraordinary cases, and,
  • Providing a joint media-judiciary education program for staff of the Court.

The work of our Media Committee, and other such committees, is of great significance to our justice system. The media is the lens through which the court sees the public, and the lens through which the public sees the court.

In collaboration with the two trial courts, Legal Aid Ontario and the Bar, we are now taking affirmative steps to prioritize the final disposition of no-access Crown wardship orders. For example, we have assigned one judge to monitor the progress of these important cases. We are also involved in developing a pilot pro bono screening program to assist unrepresented litigants to obtain more timely appeals.

Members of the Court have admirably continued to participate in a wide-variety of educational activities – nationally and internationally. Over the past year, lawyers and judges from across Canada, the United States, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa have had the benefit of learning from many of my distinguished colleagues.

Members of this Court have also continued to show great leadership in relation to:

  • the Civil Rules Committee,
  • the Family Rules Committee,
  • the Court of Appeal Media Committee,
  • the Chief Justices’ Advisory Committee on Professionalism,
  • the Chief Justices’ Information Technology Committee,
  • the Federal Judicial Advisory Committee, and
  • the provincial Accessibility Committee,

– just to mention a few.

Sadly, the legal community suffered a great loss with the passing of Justice Stephen Borins. He excelled as a lawyer, a Bencher, an academic and a judge. He will be remembered for the wisdom which is manifest in his many decisions. He will also be remembered for his big smile, his enjoyment of classical music, his love of sports, his steadfast friendships, his devotion to his family, and his loyalty to the Court.

Over the last year, we also lost a nationally celebrated jurist and a former Chief Justice of Ontario, Charles Dubin. Always thoughtful, firm and fair, Chief Justice Dubin is most notably remembered for his life-long pursuit of justice. He was a law school gold medalist and the youngest person to be appointed Queen’s Counsel in the commonwealth.

In practice, he was a true barrister. Indeed, he both set and raised the bar for the many young lawyers he mentored over the years.

In January of 1973, he was appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. He embraced his judicial work with the same kind of tenacity, inquisitiveness and sense of justice with which he practiced. He was appointed the Associate Chief Justice of Ontario in 1987, and the Chief Justice of Ontario in 1990. His tenure as Chief Justice ended in 1996.

In closing, I return to the question I posed at the outset of whether our actions are furthering our common goals of delivering fair and open justice to the public. In some instances, we can be proud of our accomplishments. In other areas, there will always be work to be done. I am convinced, however, that our collective appetite to offer barrier-free access to our laws and programs is our most powerful resource.

I profoundly hope that this year brings all of the participants in the justice system together to find sustainable ways to promote our common goals. Meaningful access to fair and open legal services is within our grasp. We must not let it slip away through complacency or inaction. The stakes are too high to countenance the denial of access to justice for the public we are here to serve.

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