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2009 Opening of the Courts Speech

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Opening of the Courts

Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo

September 14, 2009

Chief Justices, Your Honour, I echo the welcome of Chief Justices Winkler and Smith to you and to our distinguished guests here today. It is, as always, a pleasure and an honour to share the dais with my distinguished fellow Chiefs.

Again this year we are here to both celebrate and report on the justice system in Ontario and the activities of our Court.

Avec ses 287 juges et 324 juges de paix, la Cour de justice de l’Ontario est le plus gros tribunal au Canada. Toutes les affaires criminelles en Ontario débutent à ce tribunal et la grande majorité d’entre elles y sont conclues. La Cour entend les affaires de droit de la famille dans la grande partie de la province qui n’est pas encore desservie par la Cour unifiée de la famille, ainsi que toutes les infractions provinciales.

Our judges and justices of the peace preside in courtrooms across this vast province, from its biggest cities to remote communities without road access. Justices of the peace provide service seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for bail, search warrants and other emergency orders when necessary. Some 600,000 criminal charges, 27,000 family law matters and about 1.2 million provincial offences matters are handled by this Court. Many can be resolved quickly; some are complex, lengthy proceedings. Every one of them is important to the community and those directly affected by any given case.

I have been struck by the degree to which cooperation of those in the justice system is critical to its success. In the past year, repeatedly, I have seen examples of the need to work together with other participants in the justice community. It is the only way this massive workload can be managed and ensure justice is accessible in Ontario. While each of us individually, of course, must discharge our responsibilities independently and vigorously, we are not precluded from open mutual discussion and a willingness to work together on issues.

In their daily work, judges and justices of the peace not only perform their courtroom duties, but contribute in many ways to the smooth functioning of the system by sitting on local or regional committees and by providing information and advice when appropriate on court management issues. In each of the seven regions of Ontario, the Court benefits from the administrative leadership of a Regional Senior Justice and Regional Senior Justice of the Peace.

This year, Associate Chief Justice Griffiths has continued to offer his advice to the Attorney’s Justice on Target Initiative as a member of the project’s Expert Advisory Committee. The initiative’s objective of reducing the number of appearances and time to trial in criminal matters are commendable and worthy of the Court’s support. This program is unfolding at the local level, in individual court locations. Judges and justices of the peace have been engaged with others in the justice system, one court location at a time, searching for new answers to the pressing issues of delay. The renewed commitment to finding systemic solutions represented by Justice on Target is most welcome.

We pay very close attention to time-to-trial statistics in the Ontario Court of Justice. These are key indicators of how we are keeping up with the workload of our criminal courts. We have no control over the volume of trial work that comes our way, but we monitor the time-to-trial in all of our court locations to help us manage available resources and minimize the danger of unreasonable delay.

At this time last year we faced very serious situations in some of our courts with respect to systemic trial delay, particularly in the suburban courts in Toronto and in Oshawa. These problems stemmed from outstanding judicial vacancies, which have a significant impact on our ability to keep up with the trial work. I am pleased to report that recent appointments to those jurisdictions have reduced those delays significantly.

With few exceptions, our Regional Senior Judges and local judicial administrators continue to manage significant caseloads within constitutional time limits. Among these are most of our smaller court locations, as well as Ottawa, Kitchener, Hamilton, Barrie, Sudbury and Thunder Bay. This is not to say there is no work to be done to maintain and indeed shorten the time to trial. Change is possible when all stakeholders work collaboratively and cooperatively toward the common goal of timely and effective justice. Efficient and effective justice is a highly complex creation. I think all of us have learned much in the past decade or two, as collectively we struggle with workload and backlog in an increasingly complex legal landscape. I am encouraged by signs of strength and signs of our progress.

Ten years ago, my predecessor Chief Justice Brian Lennox, and Deputy Attorney General Mark Freiman established a joint committee to respond to a severe criminal backlog situation in our Court. The Government of the day appointed four new judges on the understanding that they would be committed to backlog wherever it arose.

Over the years, that committee has met to analyse backlog and caseload in Ontario, and consider where those judges would be assigned next and for how long. This way the system was able to successfully resolve crises in a number of locations. At the same time, the careful study of these locations and the various factors influencing them has taught both the Court and the Ministry much about managing backlog—or rather, managing a heavy caseload without allowing it to become backlogged to the point of crisis.

This May, the Court held its first-ever meeting of all the trial coordinators of the Ontario Court in the province. These dedicated professionals perform an essential service to the Court, the Ministry, lawyers and litigants in managing court schedules on a day to day basis. They are skilful, patient, and knowledgeable individuals. For two short days they shared their knowledge and began the process of formalizing their business.

On another front, the Court has recognized the need to review the criminal rules. They need to be simpler, more accessible to the self represented accused parties, and they need to respond to some of the recommendations of the report on major cases from the Code-LeSage Report of a year ago. The review will proceed over the next twelve to eighteen months, and will involve extensive consultations.

The members of our Court who hear family matters have also continued their excellent work. I am grateful to the judges who sit on the Advisory Committee on Family Law, who are always available to assist me on many issues. This year our court initiated a number of meetings with the Ministry and counsel in an effort to address the complex issues which arise when the same parties are involved in both family court and criminal court. In addition, our Court participated in an event, supported by the Law Foundation, to encourage law students to consider a career in child protection law. Students were invited to meet and spend an evening with judges and lawyers engaged in child protection work.

As you have heard from both Chief Justices Winkler and Chief Justice Smith, our court is also part of the effort to ensure that no-access Crown wardship matters are dealt with expeditiously.

There were a few changes in the senior administration of the court this year. We welcome Justice Marc Bode as the new Regional Senior Judge for the Northwest Region. I thank Justice Donald Fraser, who served the Northwest Region with distinction as RSJ for some five years. The Court also welcomes His Worship Jack Wiley as Regional Senior Justice of the Peace for the Central East Region, replacing Her Worship Cornelia Mews as she became Senior Advisory Justice of the Peace. In addition, His Worship John Creelman becomes RSJP for the Central West Region, when His Worship Jerry Redmond’s term expired.

Tara Dier, our Executive Legal Officer over the last two years and with twenty eight years of dedicated service to the Ontario Public Service, has decided to retire. Her wisdom and assistance has ensured that the administration of our court ran smoothly. We welcome Susan Kyle to this key position for our court.

I am grateful for the fourteen new appointments to the ranks of our judges in the past year to fill vacancies, and I continue to be impressed with the quality of the appointments. Judges of our Court are appointed from a list generated by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee, a non-partisan committee of judges, lawyers and lay members which rigorously assesses applicants on their merits and makes recommendations to the Attorney General.

Appointments of justices of the peace were few in the last year: four appointments were made, leaving twenty one vacancies across the province. The process for appointment is set out in the Justices of the Peace Act, amended in 2007 to include a complicated system of central and regional committees to advise the Attorney General on the merits of applicants. I have become concerned that the very complexity of the process has slowed the appointments, leaving some of our regions very short of justices of the peace.

I want to acknowledge and thank the members of the Court for their diligent work, year after year. I also thank the Regional Senior Judges and Justices of the Peace for their able assistance, and the two Associate Chief Justices Peter Griffiths and John Payne, for another year of progress and support. I am grateful to the Ontario Conference of Judges and the Association of Justices of the Peace of Ontario who provide helpful, clear feedback and advice to me on issues of importance to their members.

Our Court owes thanks to all those who share responsibility for delivering justice in Ontario. The Court staff, counsel and other professionals who work in our courts or in support of our courts are to be commended for their steady, capable service.

Thank you.