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2020 Opening of the Courts Speech

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Opening of Courts Speech
The Honourable Lise Maisonneuve
Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice
September 22, 2020

As we embark on our first virtual Opening of Courts, it is a great privilege to be joined here today by Chief Justice Strathy and Chief Justice Morawetz.  A warm welcome to Lieutenant-Governor Dowdeswell, Minister of Justice and Attorney General Lametti (or representative), and Attorney General Downey.

I echo Chief Justice Strathy’s comments about the disruptive impact on our society of the coronavirus pandemic combined with the serious and tragic effects of social unrest on racialized communities across Canada and the United States.  While the pandemic has been challenging for all, for the most vulnerable amongst us, it has heightened the uncertainties they face daily.

The radical changes forced upon us by the pandemic have caused profound and unprecedented disruption.  The challenges to the foundations of our society have, however, reinforced how essential a strong, fair and effective justice system is to the continuing health of our province and all the people we serve.  The pandemic may have exposed some flaws in our justice system, but it has equally revealed the possibilities for repair, improvement and progress.

I have seen opportunities emerge across the justice system in recent months.  Through the resourcefulness, adaptability and commitment of many working together, changes have been introduced which I am confident will bring long-lasting improvements to the justice system and the ways we serve the people of Ontario.

The benefits of the Ontario Court of Justice working together with the Court of Appeal and Superior Court have never been more important and significant.  Our longstanding commitment to working collaboratively has served us well over the past several months as we developed new ways delivering justice. I am grateful to Chief Justice Strathy and Chief Justice Morawetz for their support and leadership.

The members of the Ontario Court of Justice have worked diligently to maintain access to justice for all in Ontario, despite profound changes.  Of necessity, changes to our processes and procedures, for both criminal and family matters, have been made quickly but we have always placed a priority on both respecting justice and ensuring the safety of justice system participants.  Many of the new processes and procedures introduced represent efficiencies that will serve to improve the justice system going forward and should continue in place once the pandemic is behind us.

In addition, I would like to specifically thank the members of the Court’s administrative table who spent many, many long, stressful days – without a break – crafting and implementing changes to processes within our Court:  Associate Chief Justice DeFreitas, Associate Chief Justice Nicklas, Senior Advisory Justice of the Peace Scully, together with our team of Regional Senior Justices, Regional Senior Justices of the Peace, Local Administrative Justices and Local Administrative Justices of the Peace.

Over the past year, our administrative table and our Court have seen changes.  I am pleased to welcome Regional Senior Justice Vincent Clifford as the new Regional Senior Justice in the East Region, replacing Justice Jean Legault.   I thank Justice Legault for his service as a Regional Senior Justice.  Welcome to our new Senior Advisory Justice of the Peace Lauren Scully, new Senior Justice of the Peace Jane Moffatt and new Regional Senior Justice of the Peace Gary McMahon of the Northeast Region.

At this time, I wish to thank Regional Senior Justice of the Peace Linda LeBlanc of the East Region and Regional Senior Justice of the Peace Thomas Stinson of the West Region.  This will be the final time they attend the Opening of Courts ceremony in their current roles.

Over the course of the past year, 20 judges and 12 justices of the peace were appointed to our Court.  I wish to thank the members of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee and the Justice of the Peace Appointments Advisory Committee and the Attorney General for continuing your work and for ensuring appointments were made during this time. Over the years, the judicial appointments processes in this province have consistently yielded outstanding judicial officers, which reflects the important contributions of both Committees.

In particular, the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee, known as the JAAC, has been broadly recognized as safeguarding a publicly accountable judicial appointments process in this Province.  The arms-length system for judicial appointments enshrined in Ontario’s Courts of Justice Act serves to instill public confidence in the judiciary, and has resulted in the appointment of diverse and highly qualified candidates to our Court. The JAAC’s role in ensuring that judicial appointments are based solely on considerations of merit, and without regard to political affiliation, has distinguished Ontario’s process as a leading model for judicial appointments reform both in Canada and internationally.  Recent events only serve to remind us of the intrinsic value of a merit-based, independent judicial appointments process.

There are many other individuals and organizations that have demonstrated tremendous leadership during this difficult period.

The Association of Ontario Judges and the Association of Justices of the Peace of Ontario have provided great support. I acknowledge the diligence and creativity of the staff of my office, led by Executive Legal Officer, Lori Newton.  They continue to work tirelessly and the advice and guidance they provide is invaluable.

I remain firmly encouraged by the efforts of many others during this trying and stressful time.  Their willingness to cooperate and share ideas gave us the capability of rethinking and reimagining so many aspects of the justice system, while keeping it fair, open and accessible.

I thank Attorney General Downey for the efforts made by those in the Ministry of the Attorney General – and in particular by Court Services Division and the Criminal Law Division.  I acknowledge the support of the former Deputy Attorney General, Paul Boniferro, the former acting Deputy Attorney General, Irwin Glasberg, and welcome Deputy Attorney General, David Corbett.  I highlight the tremendous efforts of the former Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Court Services, Sheila Bristo, and her successors: the acting Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Beverly Leonard, and the Executive Director of the Recovery Secretariat, Samantha Poisson.

The magnitude of change accomplished in such short order would not have been possible without the contributions of the Recovery Secretariat.

To the members of the bar, staff in Court Services Division, Legal Aid Ontario, police, and service providers in family, criminal and provincial offences practice areas who have invested time and energy in learning and applying all of the new directives, processes and protocols that the Ontario Court of Justice has issued over the past seven months, I thank you.

Because of the collective efforts of all, the courts were kept open during a challenging time and courtrooms continue to reopen across the province.  Thank you.

I am grateful that, over the past several years, the Ontario Court of Justice Criminal Modernization Committee has been working diligently to improve our criminal court processes.  The Committee laid a solid roadmap for many of the solutions that have taken form in response to this crisis.  The pandemic highlighted the efforts of the Committee – demonstrating the heightened importance of its work as we now realize that virtual processes and proceedings have become an integral and lasting part of the criminal justice system.

Given the ongoing and pressing demands relating to the pandemic, I look forward to continuing to collaborate with all of the other members of the Committee, including senior officials drawn from the Court, the government, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, Legal Aid Ontario, and the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

But our journey is far from over.  Even as we continue to reopen courtrooms, we have seen our reliance on technology increase exponentially as more of our services are offered virtually.  We know that to continue the progress we’ve made, we will need significant investments in technology going forward in order to support and improve our abilities to conduct our work remotely.  For example, an updated tool to provide effective case management abilities for our Court is essential – particularly as we deal with the backlog of cases accumulated over the past several months.

Access to timely justice will be compromised without working tools in place.  Given the speed of innovation within our courts, this need is urgent and ongoing.

Increased technological tools are not the only need our courts and the litigants we serve have.  Self-represented litigants are in a particularly vulnerable position.  I reiterate Chief Justice Strathy’s calls for a significant re-investment in legal aid.  Even more than before the pandemic arrived, legal aid in this province needs to be properly funded to ensure that the most at risk in our society are served, particularly in light of the move to virtual proceedings which many vulnerable litigants may be challenged to access due to limited access to telephones or internet. Without the support legal aid is intended to provide, justice may be out of their reach in this new reality.

I commend the efforts of Ontario Court of Justice judges and justices of the peace. Our judiciary was able to ensure that the people and families of Ontario continued to have access to our services from the very outset of the pandemic.  A number of significant steps have been taken to guarantee access to justice for all in the province.  In addition, many guides for unrepresented litigants were prepared containing practical advice to help them navigate the courts – both virtually and in-person – during the pandemic.

Our Court remains committed to providing in-person appearances in appropriate cases.  We envision that “dual hearings” could be – depending on the case – partly in-person and partly virtual, all virtual or all in-person.  To provide fair, timely and equitable justice to all, we must be able to provide all three alternatives.

Recent tragic events in both Canada and the United States have brought into sharper focus issues of racism and our responsibilities to the diverse communities we serve.

Over the years, many of our educational programs for both judges and justices of the peace have addressed issues of discrimination and bias in all forms.  Our commitment to address discrimination and create a culture of anti-racism has been renewed following the events of recent months.

To that end, the Ontario Court of Justice Equity and Diversity Committee was established in 2019.  Chaired by Regional Senior Justice Aston Hall, its mandate is to advise the Court on educational initiatives for all members of our Court that promote and enhance awareness of systemic and individual racism.  Further, this Committee will provide guidance to me as we meet our obligations to confront injustice.

We know our work is not complete – and we are working to meet the challenges with determination and respect.

Before I conclude my comments today, I have one very special acknowledgement. Although his term is not completed until June 2021, this is the final Opening of Courts that Peter DeFreitas will attend in his role as Associate Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice.

The position he has occupied for close to six years is one that is daunting in its scope and importance to the Court.  He has provided a strong, innovative and thoughtful voice. He occupied influential roles on our Court’s administrative tables, including serving as the chair of the Education Secretariat and my representative on the Ontario Judicial Council.  In addition, he contributed to our Court’s modernization initiatives, with a special focus on technology.

During the past months, his calm, clear-eyed approach to providing new ways of delivering justice was an enormous contribution not only to our Court but to the justice system as a whole. The Court thanks him for his invaluable guidance and I am grateful for his friendship and sound advice.

Like Chief Justice Strathy and Chief Justice Morawetz, I am optimistic about the progress we have made. So much has been accomplished in so little time.  Given what we have realized over the past several months, I am confident the justice system will emerge stronger.  With the resilience, understanding, flexibility and tireless efforts of so many, the justice system will continue to be well supported and the people of Ontario will be well served.