Remarks of the Honourable George R. Strathy, Chief Justice of Ontario
Toronto Court House
September 9, 2014
Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us for this special sitting of Ontario’s courts.
Je suis profondément touché par votre présence à la cérémonie d’ouverture de nos tribunaux.
As most of you are aware, this is my first opportunity to preside at an Opening of Courts Ceremony. It is also one of my first opportunities to speak publicly since being appointed Chief Justice of Ontario on June 13th.
I feel very honored, and indeed humbled to be able to speak with you today.
The Opening of Courts is a very special ceremony. It is one of the few occasions when we bring together representatives from every segment of the justice community. We all have distinct, and often constitutionally separated, roles within the justice system. In many respects, the justice system depends on our independence and separation. But this occasion affords us an opportunity to meet once a year and collectively reflect on and celebrate our achievements and identify our challenges. It reminds us that whether we are politicians, judges or other judicial officers, lawyers, paralegals, law enforcement agents, or court administrators, we have an individual and collective responsibility to serve the public and improve the administration of justice.
Since becoming Chief Justice I have met with many of you and I plan to continue meeting with more representatives from the justice community in the coming months. I have also read reports many of you have worked on and have tried to familiarize myself with the issues facing our justice system.
I have been reminded of how much we have to celebrate. I have been enormously impressed with the wealth of knowledge, skill, dedication and experience that exists in this community. The public is well served by your efforts, and it is because of those efforts that we have a justice system that is admired throughout the world and held up as a model for other countries.
But there can be no doubt that we also have our challenges. I am entering my term as Chief Justice at a time when there continues to be widespread and justifiable concern about the accessibility of our justice system. Specifically, there are very serious concerns about the cost, complexity and time it takes to complete legal proceedings.
On a national level, Chief Justice Beverly McLachlan has been sounding the clarion call about access to justice for many years. Provincially, my predecessor, the Honorable Warren Winkler championed, at every opportunity, the need for greater access to justice. The Law Society has made these issues a priority and shown leadership this summer by launching the Treasurer’s Action Group on Access to Justice, a forum that will foster much needed collaboration on access to justice initiatives. I know that Attorney General Meilleur and her colleagues are also committed to addressing these challenges.
Having been a lawyer and a judge in this province for over 40 years, it strikes me that we have built a legal system that has become increasingly burdened by its own procedures, reaching a point that we have begun to impede the very justice we are striving to protect. With the best of intentions we have designed elaborate rules and practices, engineered to ensure fairness and achieve just results. But perfection can be the enemy of the good, and our justice system has become so cumbersome and expensive that it is inaccessible to many of our own citizens.
In my view, we must ask every court, every court office, every person responsible for the administration of justice to consider how their practices and procedures can be simplified, streamlined and made more user-friendly. And we must also foster a culture where these changes can be implemented. I know from my conversations with the other Chief Justices, with the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General that we all share these objectives. As Chief Justice of Ontario I will personally commit to review the Court of Appeal’s practices with a view to meeting these goals.
While many changes can be accomplished without bricks and mortar, there are parts of the justice infrastructure that are desperately in need of renewal if we are to effectively serve the public. I am aware that both trial courts have acute needs for more courtroom space. I welcome the Ontario government’s budget commitment to build a new courthouse in Toronto. It is critical that the government work with all the courts to ensure their short and long-term needs are met.
I would like to now briefly review the activities of the Court of Appeal for Ontario.
This has been a busy and historically significant year for the Court of Appeal. In December, the Honourable Warren Winkler retired after serving almost seven years as Chief Justice of Ontario and two decades as a judge.
I would like to express my personal gratitude to the former Chief Justice. Warren: thank you for your leadership both inside and outside the court. Internally you provided exemplary leadership for me and my colleagues. Externally, you raised awareness of the activities of the court and used your office to highlight key issues in the administration of justice. You are a hard act to follow, particularly for someone who does not have a dog, or even a pet. Notwithstanding this grave shortcoming, I hope I can continue to seek your advice and I look forward to our continued friendship.
There is another person I want to thank: Associate Chief Justice Alexandra Hoy. In the six months between Chief Justice Winkler’s retirement and my appointment, Associate Chief Justice Hoy led this court, providing thoughtful and steady guidance. She essentially performed two jobs: Chief and Associate Chief Justice, without easing up on her duties as a sitting judge. She is universally admired by our colleagues and continues to be a great leader for the court. Alix, thank you for all your assistance and dedication this past year. I look forward to working with you in the years ahead.
In addition to Chief Justice Warren Winkler’s retirement, there were other significant changes in the court’s composition this year. In the fall of 2013, four new judges were appointed: Justices Katherine van Rensburg, William Hourigan, Gladys Pardu and Mary Lou Benotto. They have brought substantial experience and expertise in criminal, civil and family law to our Bench. On top of that, they are fine colleagues and we are delighted to have them here.
In April, Stephen Goudge retired after serving almost eighteen years on the Court of Appeal. He had an outstanding and distinguished judicial career which included his service as the Commissioner leading the Inquiry into Pediatric and Forensic Pathology in Ontario. We miss him as a colleague but value the work he has continued to do to promote professionalism and law reform.
There are currently three vacancies on the Court. In addition to the vacancies created when Chief Justice Winkler and Justice Goudge retired, a third vacancy was created when our colleague Justice Marc Rosenberg elected supernumerary status.
Notwithstanding these vacancies, the Court of Appeal continued to hear cases and release judgments in a timely manner. Most appeals were heard within five months of perfection and almost all of the court’s reserve judgments were released within a targeted six-month period.
The Court of Appeal Continues to engage in provincial outreach activities. Each year the court visits a different region of the province to meet with the local bar and bench. In recent years the court has also begun to visit law schools during its outreach visits. Last October, the court met with professors and students at the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa. Next month the court looks forward to visiting Ontario’s newest law school, the Faculty of Law at Lakehead University, when we visit Thunder Bay for our visit to the province’s northwest region.
I am also pleased to announce that the long-awaited history of the Court of Appeal for Ontario will be published this November. The book, authored by renowned legal historian, Christopher Moore, is being published by the Osgoode Society for Legal History and the University of Toronto Press and will chart the history of Ontario’s appellate court from its origin as the Court of Error and Appeal in 1849 to its modern form today.
I am personally looking forward to reading the book. As Chief Justice of Ontario, it is an honour to be president of a court with such an august history. I am anxious to learn more about the court’s past as I work with my colleagues to chart its future.
In conclusion, thank you for attending today’s ceremony. As I begin my term as Chief Justice, I look forward to the future with great anticipation. There are significant challenges ahead, but they are not insurmountable. The people who can address those challenges are collected here in this room today. As I look around the room, I see a wealth of talented and experienced individuals who have devoted their lives to improving the administration of justice. I know that collectively we have the ideas and means to make substantial improvements in the coming years.