Opening of the Courts of Ontario for 2017

Chief Justice George Strathy
2017 Opening of Courts Remarks

Honoured guests, it is my privilege to welcome you to this celebration of the Opening of the Courts for 2017.

I say “celebration” advisedly. Although we are in a solemn setting – the largest courtroom in the province, which has witnessed more than its fair share of human tragedy – this is meant to be a happy occasion. After last year’s opening of the courts ceremony, I asked my wife, “How do you think it went?” Her reply: “Everyone was afraid to clap. You looked too grumpy.” Let me make this clear: I am not grumpy, this is a happy occasion, and I hope everyone will feel welcome to clap whenever they want.

Ontario’s tradition of celebrating the Opening of Courts dates to 1946, when Chief Justice James McRuer of the High Court, borrowing the practice of the English courts, initiated a ceremony to mark the beginning of our legal year. Chief Justice McRuer was the only speaker that year. According to the Toronto Daily Star, the Chief Justice blamed liquor, divorce and crime fiction for an increase in criminal activity. Mercifully, perhaps, others were invited to speak in subsequent years. In the 1950s, the Treasurer of the Law Society, the federal Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of Ontario were added as speakers. Eventually, representatives of legal organizations and other justice sector participants were invited. The involvement of these participants reminds us that despite our distinct and sometimes adversarial roles, we share a common concern for the health of our justice system.

I am constantly reminded that there is much to celebrate in our justice system. I have enjoyed working with many of you. As I look around this room I see people who either individually or as part of their organizations are bringing real access to justice to the people of Ontario.

For example, since 2010, the Law Foundation of Ontario has distributed more than 20 million dollars in over 185 grants through its Access to Justice Fund. These grants have provided legal support and advocacy to assist people and communities on the margins of the legal system. Hundreds of projects have been funded, including student clinics for family law litigants, legal support for indigenous women involved in the criminal justice system, and support for victims of domestic violence.

Also noteworthy is the work done by Pro Bono Ontario, which has successfully harnessed the legal profession’s tradition of providing free legal services to clients in need. In so doing, it serves more than 20,000 clients a year, not only providing access to justice, but saving the legal system millions of dollars each year by assisting litigants to resolve their disputes more efficiently, requiring less court resources. As I have said before, money spent through Pro Bono Ontario and Pro Bono Canada is doing more to provide access to justice, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, than any other program out there.

Equally impressive is what can be accomplished when groups combine their efforts. During this past year, the Advocates’ Society, the Indigenous Bar Association and the Law Society of Upper Canada have been drafting a “Guide for Lawyers Working with Indigenous Peoples and Issues”. I have reviewed an early draft and was very impressed. When published, it will be a practical and sensitive resource for the legal community, including the bench and the bar.

While many efforts are being made to improve access to justice, we cannot lose sight of systemic concerns. The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R v. Jordan in 2016 criticized the culture of delay and focused our attention on the timeliness of criminal proceedings. These concerns have been vigorously addressed by my colleagues on the trial courts, who will undoubtedly be speaking about these issues.

It is, however, important to ensure that civil and family matters are not eclipsed by the pressing need to address criminal justice efficiencies. In particular, I note that both levels of government, both trial courts, and leaders of the family law bar have expressed their desire to continue the expansion of the Unified Family Court in Ontario. We simply cannot afford to lose this opportunity to move forward with this long-awaited reform.

We need to also take a hard look at the effectiveness of the civil justice system, in providing timely and efficient access to justice. The diversion of judicial resources in light of Jordan has had the unfortunate effect of creating greater strains on the civil docket. We must renew our efforts to improve access to civil justice.

Let me turn to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. The work of the Court of Appeal not only shapes the lives of the people of Ontario, but is frequently referred to by other appellate courts in Canada and abroad. The quality and volume of the court’s jurisprudential output remains second to none in the common law provinces.

In the coming six months, four of our longest-serving colleagues, Justices Karen Weiler, Robert Blair, Eleanor Cronk and John Laskin will retire. These judges, collectively, represent more than 100 years’ experience on the bench and nearly 80 years’ at the Court of Appeal. These four jurists have helped to shape the direction of the court and its jurisprudence over the last quarter century, and helped to define what it means to be a judge of the Court of Appeal for Ontario. Their legacy will continue to inspire us for decades to come. Every one of them has been an outstanding colleague and they will be sorely missed.

I am pleased to say that since the Opening of the Courts ceremony last September, the Court has been enriched by the appointment of three new judges who are worthy recipients of the torch passed by our retiring colleagues. Justices Gary Trotter and Michal Fairburn came to us from the Superior Court, and Justice David Paciocco from the Ontario Court of Justice. We are delighted to welcome our new colleagues and I wish to express my thanks to the Minister of Justice for these timely and outstanding appointments.

Two of our colleagues on the Court have taken on special responsibilities at the request of the Ontario government. I reported last year that Justice Michael Tulloch had been appointed to review and report on police oversight in the province. In April, Justice Tulloch delivered his report and recommendations, which were highly regarded for being thorough, fair, and balanced. The government subsequently appointed Justice Tulloch to conduct a second review, in relation to police checks, which he has now begun.

More recently, Justice Eileen Gillese was appointed to lead a two-year Commission of Inquiry into matters relating to offences committed by a nurse who was convicted of the murder of eight seniors under her care. We will miss Justices Tulloch and Gillese as colleagues in our daily work. But they have undertaken important responsibilities in relation to issues of significant importance to the safety and governance of all Ontarians. It is a sign of the public confidence in the court and its members that our colleagues have been entrusted with these important public duties.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge two important changes in our court staff. Those of you who work with or appear in our court will know that we are justifiably proud of our extraordinary staff. Alison Warner, our Senior Legal Officer and the director of legal services at the court, recently stepped down from her position to take a secondment to the Office of the Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice. We are tremendously grateful to Alison for her two decades of service, first as a staff lawyer and more recently as Senior Legal Officer. The court has benefited greatly from Alison’s brilliant legal mind, dedication and leadership. We will miss you, Alison.

I am pleased to say that Alison’s successor has recently been hired, and that Falguni Debnath, a senior litigator at the Federal Department of Justice with a breadth of legal and managerial experience, will be joining us as Senior Legal Officer in mid-October. Falguni, welcome to the Court of Appeal.

I have in the past commented on the need for technological modernization. The Court of Appeal, and our staff, have been working with the Ministry of the Attorney General and external consultants to assess our current and future technological needs to enable us to better serve the public and the legal profession. I want to express my thanks to the Attorney General and his staff for their enthusiastic support of this project. In that regard, I am pleased to recognize and welcome [Acting] Deputy Attorney General Irwin Glasberg, who earlier this year succeeded former Deputy, Patrick Monahan, who continues to serve the public as a judge of the Superior Court of Justice. Thank you, Deputy Glasberg and Justice Monahan in your former capacity for your support.

In closing, as I look around the room and observe the people in it – the judges, lawyers, paralegals, court administrators, legislators and law enforcement officials, I am struck by our shared goal of making our legal system the best in the world. We demonstrate that every day. We all recognize that there is room for improvement, but we should not lose sight of our accomplishments. There is, indeed, much to celebrate.

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