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Opening of the Courts

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Opening of Courts Speech
The Honourable Lise Maisonneuve
Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice
September 14, 2021

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, Mr. Michael Morris, Senior General Counsel, representing the Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti and Attorney General Downey.

Residential schools

I wish to take a moment to acknowledge the hurt and distress resulting from the burial sites of Indigenous children at former Residential Schools across the country. The recent revelations about these burial sites have rightly shocked the conscience of Canadians.

Our thoughts are with the families, survivors, communities, and Nations grieving across the country. This discovery has been a painful reminder of the shameful legacy of Residential Schools and underscores the harsh realities documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Our Court recognizes the impact this news has had on many of us and the people we serve.

Within the scope of our mandate as judicial officers, it is important for the Court to enhance our work to promote reconciliation efforts as we continue to innovate the justice system and address the unprecedented issues presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Court administration—transition

Over the past year, our administrative team has seen many changes. I would like to welcome our new Associate Chief Justice, Aston Hall who assumed his new responsibilities during a critical time of transformation. Associate Chief Justice Hall is an experienced judicial leader, having served as a Local Administrative Judge, Regional Senior Judge, a member of the Court’s Education Secretariat and Ontario’s Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee. Associate Chief Justice Hall was born in Jamaica and brings his experience as an immigrant and a proud Black Canadian to serve as our Court’s first Black Associate Chief Justice. I look forward to continuing to work with Associate Chief Justice Hall on the exciting new projects and challenges our Court has before it.

I am also pleased to welcome Regional Senior Justice David Gibson as the new Regional Senior Justice in the Northwest, Regional Senior Justice Karen Lische in the Northeast Region and Regional Senior Justice Sandra Bacchus in Toronto. I extend a warm welcome to Regional Senior Justice of the Peace Herb Kreling of the East Region and Regional Senior Justice of the Peace Sonia Aleong in the West Region. I thank all the outgoing Justices and Justices of the Peace who have contributed greatly to our administrative team.

Over the course of the past year, 18 judges and 41 justices of the peace were appointed to our Court. I recognize the important contributions of both the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee and the Justice of the Peace Appointments Advisory Committee, and I thank the members for all of their work.

The pandemic innovations

The last 18 months has taken a tremendous toll on all of us. The pandemic has put a significant strain on the physical and mental health of many in our province. It has also highlighted the inequities that the most vulnerable people among us face.

Through an incredible amount of hard work and dedication, we were able to keep the courts open and serve the public throughout the pandemic. Our success in, not only managing during the pandemic, but in innovating and improving access to the courts, came about due to the time, effort and expertise of many people and organizations.

The justice system has adapted with remarkable ease and effectiveness to new technologies that have facilitated necessary remote hearings and processes. This has been a remarkable transformation given, up until March 2020 our Court was almost an entirely paper-based process.

The Court has been able to move to conducting proceedings virtually not only in bail, remand, and plea courts, but also in preliminary inquiries, in criminal and family trials, and in Child, Youth and Family Services Act proceedings. Remote trials have also begun in many provincial offences courts.

In addition, there was an accelerated expansion of electronic initiatives to increase efficiency and reduce the need for in-person attendance at courthouses. For example, as a result of the eHub, eTelewarrant, eIntake and the eReports to Justice charges can now enter the court system electronically rather than police having to appear in person before a justice of the peace with paper documents. While much has been accomplished, there is still work to be done to ensure that processes at the front end of the system can be done electronically. I appreciate the ongoing support of the Modernization division of the Ministry of the Solicitor General in these critical projects, which are important steps toward a paperless justice system.

Another significant and long overdue innovation has been the establishment of virtual case management courts. Gone are the days when an accused person or their counsel must travel for a 5-minute court appearance that could be addressed just as meaningfully by video. These courts are one of the Covid innovations that will make a permanent improvement to the justice system. Other initiatives that have been introduced or expanded in the past year include the Enhanced Designation of Counsel which also reduced the need for court appearances and the Ontario Court of Justice Bail Protocol. This protocol addressed the transition to virtual proceedings and ensures that bail hearings are dealt with in a timely, just and effective manner.

I want to be clear that while virtual proceedings increase access to justice for many, for others – including those who do not have access to technology – virtual hearings are not a viable means to have their cases adjudicated. Our Court remains committed to providing in-person appearances, in appropriate cases, to provide meaningful access to justice for all Ontarians.

In family law, the judiciary adapted quickly to new technologies to ensure that our family litigants were able to have meaningful access to justice at a time when families faced new and unprecedented challenges because of Covid-19 lockdowns and public health restrictions. With the hard work of the Family Rules Committee, Rules were amended to enhance the Court’s authority to hear all or any part of a case using telephone or video technology. This is in addition to Rule updates enhancing e-filing of documents. We are continuing to advance on all fronts regarding family law modernization, including looking forward to implementing CaseLines, the online document sharing platform, for our Court’s family matters.

These transitions would not have been possible without the strong collaboration between the Ontario Court of Justice, the Court of Appeal and the Superior Court of Justice. This collaboration allowed us to quickly pivot to delivering justice and remain accessible to the public despite pandemic limitations. I am extremely grateful to Chief Justice Strathy and Chief Justice Morawetz for their support and leadership.

In addition, I would like to thank the Court’s administrative team who worked so hard to allow the Court to adapt to the changes necessitated by the pandemic: former Associate Chief Justice Peter DeFreitas, Associate Chief Justice Hall, Associate Chief Justice Nicklas, Senior Advisory Family Judge Lise Parent, 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. I would also like to acknowledge the dedication and expertise of His Worship Brian Norton, Her Worship Diane McAleer and Her Worship Renee Rerup and the e-project Justice of the Peace regional leads who made invaluable contributions in modernizing the front end of the criminal justice system.

I am grateful to the Ontario Court of Justice judges and justices of the peace. As a result of your adaptability and commitment, the Court has been able to ensure that the people of Ontario had access to our services during the pandemic. I am also grateful to the Association of Ontario Judges and the Association of Justices of the Peace of Ontario for their assistance and insights during this most challenging time.

Our Court has worked constructively with the Ministries of the Attorney General and Solicitor General as well as municipalities to address the challenges the pandemic presented. I thank Attorney General Downey and Deputy Attorney General David Corbett for their support and for the exemplary assistance provided by Ministry staff. The Court Services, Criminal Law Divisions, and the Recovery Secretariat deserve particular recognition. I would like to thank Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Court Services, Beverly Leonard and Assistant Deputy Attorney General for the Recovery Secretariat, Samantha Poisson for their remarkable efforts over the past eighteen months. Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Corporate Services Management Paula Reid and Director Peter O’Keefe have also been instrumental in providing support for critical modernization investments.

A very special thank you to the directors and managers of Court Services and the hundreds of front-line court staff, including Trial Coordinators, for their tireless efforts to keep the courts functioning and accessible to all court users.

Thanks also to the Court’s own staff, led by Executive Legal Officer, Lori Newton, who directly support the judiciary in the regional offices, and in my office.

And of course, our thanks to our justice partners – members of the bar, police, correctional services, Legal Aid Ontario, municipalities, and service providers in family, criminal and provincial offences practice areas – who adapted to new processes and who kept the wheels of justice turning during these uncertain times. Our courts across the province remained open due to your efforts.

The pandemic—continuing challenges

Though justice participants can feel proud of many accomplishments during the past 18 months, some challenges remain.

One challenge we cannot ignore is the backlog of cases in our courts. This past year has seen an extra 60,000 criminal cases added to our backlog. There is also a backlog in Provincial Offences court. While the number of family matters in case management court has been reduced, there remains a concerning backlog in family trial matters.

The Court is working to address pandemic-related trial backlogs in criminal, family and Provincial Offences Act court. A number of initiatives have already been identified to reduce the criminal case backlog. These initiatives include judge-led case management courts; an increase in availability of judicial pre-trials to get these matters ready for trial or resolution; and additional plea and trial courts.

The Court also continues to experience issues in our satellite and fly-in courts, which were particularly badly affected by the pandemic. We are committed to working with justice and community partners to address the current unsustainable state in these courts and communities.

There is a renewed need for a robust, sustainable, and properly supported legal aid system in both criminal and family courts to ensure equitable access to justice.

While we have made significant advances in video capacity in our courts, there continues to be a pressing need for increased technology and staffing, in courts and in correctional institutions. These investments are critical so that accused persons are brought before the Court in a timely manner for their court appearances.

We have accomplished a great deal by working cooperatively with our justice partners. I am certain these challenges can be addressed by continuing to work together to make an equitable and modern justice system.

Other Strategic Priorities for the Court

Despite the pandemic, the Court continued to move forward on other strategic priorities—three of which I will highlight today.

The work of the Court’s Judicial Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee and the Indigenous Initiatives Advisory Committee continue as important forums for the Court to enhance and promote equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Despite the enormous challenges we faced with the pandemic, the Court is also very proud that we have been able to continue the collaboration with the Ministry of the Attorney General and community partners to launch three pilot Justice Centres in Toronto Downtown East, Northwest Toronto, and London. We look forward to a fourth Centre launching shortly in Kenora. Through this initiative, the OCJ is innovating how justice is delivered to our most vulnerable and marginalized populations.

The future

So, what lies ahead? There are uncertain days and months ahead as new Covid variants challenge our early optimism about vaccination and herd immunity. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done especially for the least enfranchised. The pandemic has forced the justice system to modernize. We made great strides in delivering justice virtually and advanced opportunities to improve access to justice. We will continue to work collaboratively with all justice partners as we move forward from pandemic responses to post-pandemic operations.

Conclusion

Once the pandemic is finally behind us, I am confident that the justice system will be a more robust system – one that will benefit from the innovations and one that is more accessible and inclusive to the most vulnerable individuals in our society.