Remarks of Chief Justice George Strathy at the Opening of Courts of Ontario, 2016
Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, Welcome to the opening of the courts for Ontario.
We often speak of the “justice system” as though it were a faceless monolith. This ceremony reminds us that the justice system is composed of people. People like the hard-working judges, masters and justices of the peace you see before you. People like the dedicated court staff who make the system work. People like the lawyers and paralegals who deliver every day on the promise of access to justice. People like our legislators, public servants and police officers – those who make, administer and enforce our laws.
And because we happen to be sitting in one of the largest courtrooms in the province, in downtown Toronto, it is important to remind ourselves that across this vast province, from urban centres to rural communities, in over 161 courthouses, from Kenora to Cornwall and from Gore Bay to Goderich, including fly-in courts across the north, thousands of dedicated people are serving the justice system and making it work.
Despite our geographic distance and distinct roles, we all share a common objective: we are all committed to maintaining and improving our justice system. Not as an end in itself, but because we know that a strong justice system is essential to maintaining a fair and just society.
Because we cherish our system of justice, we are not blinded to its shortcomings. While we celebrate its strengths, we seek to constantly improve it.
In past years, I have spoken of the need to improve the efficiency of the justice system. This summer, the Supreme Court of Canada brought this home with a thunderbolt in its reasons in The Queen v. Jordan. The Supreme Court implored us to work collectively to address what it called a “culture of delay” and established new guidelines for determining when delay is unreasonable in criminal proceedings.
“Real change” it said “will require the efforts and coordination of all participants in the criminal justice system.” This includes legislators, public servants, and counsel, but it also includes the judiciary. The Supreme Court said this change may require new case management regimes and called upon trial judges to make “reasonable efforts to control and manage the conduct of trials.” Its message did not end with the trial courts. It called upon appellate courts to show deference to case management efforts and be mindful of the impact our decisions have on the conduct of trials.
I know that the leadership of both the Superior Court and the Ontario Court of Justice have been working diligently this summer to promote compliance with the timelines set by Jordan. This is very much a continuation of the work these courts were already doing to promote efficiency.
Improvements in efficiency, will require a change in mindset – a culture change – on the part of everyone in this room. It will require a recognition that access to justice and public confidence are related to efficiency of justice.
Real change will also require significant investment in the modernization of the justice system, to equip us with the tools and technology we need to manage our caseload and better serve the public. I know the Attorney General and Ministry staff recognize this need and I hopeful the resources will be provided to address this need.
Some areas of law require acute attention. Both levels of government have shown renewed commitment to working together to address some of our most pressing concerns. Let me mention two.
First, the federal and provincial governments have made a commitment to address the aboriginal justice issues that were highlighted in the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a matter of urgent and ongoing concern that, fifteen years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Gladue, in which it highlighted the disproportionate rate of incarceration of aboriginal people, those rates of incarceration have continued to rise. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission observed more than one quarter of people receiving custodial sentences are aboriginal, although they make up only 4% of the population. I am heartened that the Ministry of the Attorney General is making a renewed effort to work with all interested parties, including the three courts to address these issues as an immediate priority.
A second area where there is real reason for optimism is Family Law. In previous years I have emphasized the need for family law reform, and have noted that an expansion of the Unified Family Court could do much to address these concerns. I am very pleased to observe that both levels of government have shown a renewed interest in expanding Ontario’s Unified Family Court. Chief Justice Smith and Chief Justice Maisonneuve have been working together with the Ministry of the Attorney General and are well on their way to developing practical plan for UFC expansion which will bring meaningful improvements for Ontarians. These developments demonstrate what we are capable of doing when we work together.
I turn now to the Court of Appeal for Ontario, the Court in which I have the honour to preside. I am assisted by Associate Chief Justice Alexandra Hoy, who is not only a wise judge and counsellor, but a tireless leader of the court. We are fortunate to serve on the Court with 27 exceptional jurists who care passionately about the law and the administration of justice. The nature and pace of our work is challenging. We hear approximately one thousand appeals and one thousand motions each year. In most instances we are the final court of appeal. The cases we hear are not only important to the parties, they also provide jurisprudential guidance and shape the future of our law. Despite the volume and complexity of our workload, we are able to discharge our responsibilities efficiently. The average appeal takes less than one year to complete – from the time the notice of appeal is filed to the release of reasons. The average time from perfection to hearing is approximately 5 months. Almost all our reserve judgments are released within a targeted six month period, and the average time for release of reserve judgments is only one and a half months.
The court continues to go through a period of unprecedented change in its complement. Almost two-thirds of our full-time judges have been appointed within the last five years. This pace of change is continuing. As a result, we currently have three vacancies and are expecting two more in the new year.
To maintain the quality and efficiency of our work we will require timely new appointments. I recently met with Minister Wilson-Raybould and I am confident she will make it a priority to fill vacancies on this and other courts across Canada in a timely manner.
In April our colleague Justice Michael Tulloch was appointed by the Ontario Government to conduct an independent review of police oversight. Justice Tulloch is now engaged in a province-wide consultation and is scheduled to deliver his report in 2017. While we miss his day-to-day presence as a colleague on our panels, we are pleased he was selected to undertake this important review and know his report will make a great contribution to justice in this province.
We know the bar would like to increase the availability and ease with which you can file materials electronically as well as improve the convenience with which you can make remote appearances. Minister Naqvi has committed to assist us with technological innovation. We are working closely with Deputy Minister Monahan and the newly appointed Assistant Deputy Ministers for Court Services and Modernization, Sheila Bristo and Lynn Norris, to review our options for technological improvement and we hope to make substantial improvements in the coming years.
In the year ahead we will be resuming our series of provincial outreach programs. In October the court’s judges will be meeting with the bench and bar in London, Ontario. While in London, we will also be meeting the students and faculty at Western Law as well as visiting local legal aid clinics and a regional detention centre. These outreach visits are an important way for us to learn more about the work of our justice sector partners across the province.
In closing, I return to my opening comments. At every level in this province, the justice system is administered and assisted by talented and committed people. We have many challenges: we need to improve efficiency and reduce delay. We have acute needs in certain areas, including aboriginal justice and family law. The justice sector needs substantial investment to bring it into the 21st century. I am confident, however that working together, we have the ability to make substantial improvements to address these needs in the coming years.