Opening of the Courts of Ontario for 2015

Remarks of Chief Justice George Strathy at the Opening of Courts of Ontario, September 24, 2015

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us for this special sitting of the courts of Ontario.

As we begin another court year, it is appropriate to observe that in a world in which so many are fleeing chaos and the absence of the rule of law, we are privileged to live in a country governed by the rule of law. That right is not to be taken for granted – indeed, the surest way to lose that right is to take it for granted.

En ce début de nouvelle année judiciaire, il est important de souligner que dans un monde où tant de gens fuient le chaos et l’absence de primauté du droit, nous avons le privilège de vivre dans un pays régi par la primauté du droit. Ce droit ne doit pas être pris pour acquis – en effet, le plus sûr moyen de perdre ce droit est de le prendre pour acquis.

Whether we are judges or other judicial officers, lawyers, paralegals, law enforcement agents, legislators or public servants, this ceremony reminds us that share a common responsibility to promote the rule of law, to improve the administration of justice and to assist those who seek justice.

Having spent much of the past year observing the justice system in operation, and working with many of you, I am left with the conviction we have much to be proud of.

We can be proud of our strong and independent bar, represented by the Treasurer and the representatives of legal organizations you see before you, all of whom are dedicated to enhancing the administration of justice.

We can be proud of our courts and the judges and other judicial officers who deliver on the promise of access to justice every day, in hundreds of courtrooms in every region of this vast province. We can be proud of the dedicated and professional staff of the Ministry of the Attorney General who support the work of the courts and serve the public. In this respect, I want to specifically acknowledge the contribution of Lynne Wagner, Assistant Deputy Attorney General for the Court Services Division who will be retiring this winter after 30 years of public service. Lynne has shown great leadership and offered me invaluable assistance and advice in my role as Chief Justice.

Our pride in our system of justice does not blind us to its shortcomings. It makes us want remedy those shortcomings and improve our system.

Yes, we have our challenges.

We are all acutely aware of those challenges. Last year at this ceremony I spoke of the need to enhance access to justice and suggested we should all examine our own practices and procedures to increase access to our justice system.

I know this has been a priority for Chief Justices Smith and Chief Justice Maisonneuve, and it is also a priority for the Court of Appeal. At the Court of Appeal for Ontario, we have struck an Innovation and Access to Justice Committee chaired by Justice van Rensburg to recommend and implement specific changes to make our court more accessible and to make our processes easier to navigate. This Committee is working to improve the public information we put on our website, make enhancements in filing and scheduling, and explore opportunities for improving remote access to the Court.

Minister Meilleur has also made access to justice a priority, and has played a pivotal role in bringing together all participants in the justice system to address our challenges.

The government’s increased funding to Legal Aid Ontario is already having a substantial impact. Legal aid eligibility thresholds have been raised for the first time since 1996. The increases will also improve duty counsel and clinic funding and allow for the expansion of services.

At the Court of Appeal, increased funding has permitted Legal Aid Ontario to ensure there is legal representation for the most vulnerable – by providing legal representation for all appellants in mental health appeals from the Ontario Review Board and by enabling our important inmate appeal program to hire a permanent staff member. I want to thank Justice Katherine Feldman of the Court of Appeals for her work in coordinating both inmate appeals and the ORB appeal program and for working with Legal Aid to enhance both programs.

Legal Aid Ontario is working with the courts to establish a protocol for funding counsel for child protection appeals. All three courts are committed to prioritizing children in family law and have a joint committee dedicated to identifying and addressing sources of delay in these appeals. The efficient funding of counsel is an essential part of this process.

Many of the legal organizations represented here today are making these issues a priority. Last year the Advocates’ Society raised $70,000 for the inmate appeal program. Some organizations represented today, like Pro Bono Canada and Pro Bono Law Ontario fill the gap in areas where legal aid is not available. Last year Pro Bono Law Ontario served nearly 16,000 clients who had nowhere else to turn. It continues to offer a vital program at the Court of Appeal, training and assisting lawyers who provide voluntary duty counsel services to self-represented appellants two days a week.

There remains much to be done. Let me mention three priorities. First, family law, in particular, requires rationalization and simplification. The social, economic and human costs of the current system are simply unacceptable. Second, significant improvements to court technology are required to provide the public and the bar with cost-effective access to justice. Third, inadequate courthouse security, in many courthouses across the province, including downtown Toronto, puts both the public and the judiciary at risk. Working collaboratively with the Attorney General and her staff, as we have been, we expect these issues will continue to be given priority in the year ahead.

This brings me to a review of the activities of the Court of Appeal.

This was a year of significant change for the Court of Appeal.

We have welcomed four new judges to our bench. Some of you attended this week’s swearing in-ceremony for our newest colleagues, Justice Lois Roberts and Justice Bradley Miller. In December, Justices David Brown and Grant Huscroft were appointed to the court. These judges bring a wealth of experience from the trial courts, the academy and private practice, and we are delighted to have them join us at the Court of Appeal.

Sadly, we also lost a cherished colleague this past month. In August the Honourable Marc Rosenberg passed away after a long illness. His illness and death shook the members of our court and many members of the legal community. Marc was one of the greatest criminal law jurists Canada has ever produced. He was renowned for his expertise and for teaching judges and lawyers, not only across Canada but throughout the world. He was also a dear friend and a most generous colleague. On behalf of the Court I express our condolences to his partner Pricilla, and to his children, Debra and Daniel.

Administratively, the court is also going through changes. In the spring, John Kromkamp, the Court’s Senior Legal Officer of almost 25 years retired. For many of you John was the public face of the Court. Quietly and calmly he assisted thousands of Ontarians and led the legal advice team for the Court. Alison Warner, a Court of Appeal staff lawyer for more than 15 years, is our new Senior Legal Officer and is doing a tremendous job.

Le mois prochain, Huguette Thomson, notre greffière et chef de l’administration des tribunaux, prendra sa retraite. Il est difficile d’imaginer une ouverture des tribunaux sans Huguette. Elle a dirigé le personnel administratif de cette cour pendant 17 ans, et va nous manquer. Huguette – Mme la greffière – je vous remercie de tout ce que vous avez fait pour nous.

We are very pleased that Stephen Mills-Hughes, sitting in the front row, will be assuming her role, and I know you will get to know him as a trusted representative of our court.

A significant part of the mandates of our new Registrar and our new Senior Legal Officer will be aimed at enhancing this court’s service to the public.

Despite all of these changes, the business of the court has continued seamlessly. We continue to hear cases within 5 months, and most of our judgments are released within a targeted 6-month time frame. Urgent cases, such as child protection appeals, continue to be expedited.

Vous vous souvenez sûrement de la promesse ridicule que j’avais faite au président de l’association des juristes d’expression française à cette même occasion l’année dernière. Je suis ravi de vous annoncer qu’après un an de cours de français, j’ai passé le test, de justesse, enfin. Il m’a donné des devoirs de rattrapage, et j’espère que j’aurais l’occasion de faire beaucoup mieux l’année prochaine.

[You may recall that on this occasion last year I made a foolish promise to the President of L’Association des jurists de l’expression francais. I am pleased to say that, after one year of French lessons, I passed the test – barely. He has given me some remedial work to do, and I am hoping to do even better next year.]

In closing, I know that I speak for all my colleagues in the Court of Appeal, when I say what a great privilege it is to serve the people of this province. I am grateful to Associate Chief Justice Hoy, to my colleagues, to the extraordinary staff at the Court of Appeal for Ontario, and to you – all of you – for your support.

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