Opening of the Courts

Opening of Courts Speech
The Honourable Sharon Nicklas
Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice
September 28, 2023

Thank you, Chief Justice Tulloch and Chief Justice Morawetz for your kind greetings. It is an honour and privilege to be with you in my first Opening of Courts in my new role.

My thanks to all those present today in person and online and in particular to Attorney General Doug Downey, Minister of Justice and Attorney General Arif Virani, and all our distinguished speakers and representatives of legal organizations.


I would like first of all to recognize former Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve for her remarkable leadership and commitment to the Court during her term of office. During her time as Chief Justice, Justice Maisonneuve worked tirelessly on initiatives to further the work of the court. She always ensured when a proposal for change was made, that the perspective of the public was keenly considered. Needless to say, Justice Maisonneuve’s term was not what she was expecting when she was appointed in 2015. However, COVID did not define or limit Chief Justice Maisonneuve’s term, vision, or initiatives. The Court benefitted enormously from her commitment to modernization and keen defence of access to justice in all the communities our Court proudly serves.

I would also like to thank Associate Chief Justice Aston Hall, who provides the Court with insightful leadership and a deep passion for justice. Further, it is my pleasure to welcome Associate Chief Justice Jeanine LeRoy to her new role which includes being Co-ordinator of our Justices of the Peace. I sincerely look forward to working closely with both of them.

Our Court has benefitted enormously from four Chief Justices, each who left their own legacy. Former Chief Justices Linden, Lennox, Bonkalo and Maisonneuve have set our Court on the path that now has us doing approximately 99 percent of the criminal work in the province, conducting family court in 25 jurisdictions, and all of the Provincial Offences work in the 56 independent municipal courts, where our Justices of the Peace hear cases governed by over 100 different statutes. Our Court is strong and highly regarded thanks to the foundations laid by my predecessors and the excellent judicial administrative leadership teams of the past decades.

I would like to welcome to our leadership team Senior Advisory Family Judge Justice Sheilagh O’Connell, who assumed her responsibilities as of January 1, 2023. Justice O’Connell’s predecessor, Justice Lise Parent, provided enormous support to our family courts during the challenging pandemic years. My thanks to both Justices for their important leadership in enhancing access to justice for Ontario families.

In addition, I would like to acknowledge that for Regional Senior Justice Rosenberg and Regional Senior Justices of the Peace Farnand and Caron this will be their last Opening of Courts as part of our Court’s administrative leadership team as their terms of office expire in the coming year. My profound thanks to each of them for their service to the Court.

It is a huge responsibility to be, so to speak, the team captain of approximately 300 full-time judges, 300 full-time justices of the peace, and 75 part-time judiciary on each Bench. Of course, I do not take this responsibility on alone. The Court is fortunate to have an impressive and increasingly diverse judicial leadership team. My thanks to the Regional Senior Judges, Regional Senior Justices of the Peace, our Senior Advisory Family Judge, Senior Advisory Justice of the Peace Lauren Scully, Senior Indigenous Justice of the Peace Agnew and Senior Justice of the Peace Moffat, Local Administrative Judges, and Local Administrative Justices of the Peace.

Mr. Attorney General, it is an honour to be chosen as the Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this Court of dedicated judicial officers. I am also thankful for the welcome you have given me and the collaborative dialogue we have established. I look forward to continuing with our discussions to improve the justice system for all Ontarians. The Court appreciated your announcement concerning the Court’s Digital Transformation initiative. We look forward to continuing collaboration as the initiative moves forward.

Our thanks also to Deputy Attorney General David Corbett and Assistant Deputy Attorneys General Beverly Leonard and Paula Reid for their assistance in our efforts to modernize the justice system.  As we embrace technology, our judiciary would not be able to do their work without the commitment and professionalism of the Court Services staff and our Trial Coordinators.

At the Crossroads

We are at a crossroads now. The worldwide public health crisis was a challenge for all sectors of society. The Ontario Courts met that challenge with a robust response. However, the time is right to think about where we go to ensure that we have the public’s trust in our system. The shift to virtual work for health and safety reasons revealed that it could be advantageous to access justice using technology. Still, we also see that the changes this brings may not always lead to timely justice, when there is less personal attention to individuals, their cases, and the often-challenging human and societal issues those matters present us with. We must work together to build a dynamic justice system that is innovative, collaborative, and principled.

Concerning our criminal court work, we have recently begun to have focused post-pandemic discussions on proposed improvements to our criminal courts. Our attention is focused on streamlining bail, case management, and trial scheduling. I am excited about these discussions and the opportunity to better serve the people of Ontario.

Every day, our judges, justices of the peace and all those who work in our system address members of marginalized communities, including those dealing with addiction and mental health issues. We currently have the benefit of four Justice Centre pilots and a range of specialized criminal courts that focus on the needs of some marginalized communities. However, we need to consider how we might better serve all those who come before our Court from marginalized communities, particularly where there is no specialized court or Centre to address their case.  I am committed to working in close collaboration with all criminal justice partners making the Courts and the justice system as transparent as possible to ensure the legitimacy of and confidence in our system of justice.

In our family courts, we are facing similar challenges. We have been in discussions over the past year about virtual and in-person hearings. Virtual hearings are not always the most effective way of achieving a thoughtful and appropriate settlement in family cases. We recognize that in remote communities, particularly in the North, virtual hearings allow people to participate more easily in the court process. We have amended our Modes of Appearances in family matters, which will be effective October 10, to try and respond to the challenges we face at the current crossroads so that families can achieve meaningful settlements in a timely fashion.

Our Provincial Offences Courts, where our Justices of the Peace preside over traffic and other regulatory matters, have also been very flexible in offering in-person and virtual options to defendants, counsel, and witnesses. It has been a time of intense change for the municipalities who oversee these courts. I am particularly looking forward to the outcomes from a Provincial Offences Act Summit being held tomorrow in Central West Region. This may be the first of many opportunities to bring together the key justice participants for our Provincial Offences Courts, to move forward together. We look forward to enhanced collaboration and consistency in practice going forward.

Judicial Education – Diversity and Inclusion

Ontario is a leader in providing comprehensive social context education  to our judiciary, including issues facing Indigenous peoples’ and to promote Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. The Ontario Court of Justice has benefited enormously from the insights and experience of our Indigenous Initiatives Advisory Committee and our Judicial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee in enhancing our judicial education initiatives in support of September 30 as National Day of Truth and Reconciliation and for Black History Month. I sincerely thank Associate Chief Justice Aston Hall, Chair of the Judicial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, and all the members of both committees for their guidance on these important issues that have supported our judicial education. We are learning and growing together.

I have had the great opportunity to work closely with many of our incredible colleagues from diverse backgrounds, most recently as chair of the Indigenous Initiatives Advisory Committee. I am learning not only about reconciliation, but “reconciliaction.” Their lessons on leading a good life with an open mind and heart, on the importance of knowing the truth, on the importance of connections, and on gratitude have had a profound impact on me. As I heard an Elder recently state, we need to build a road of hope together to walk in a good way for the people who we serve.

Merci, Migwich, Thank you very much.

Ontario Court of Justice