Opening of the Courts – 2008

Chief Justice Heather Forster Smith

September 9, 2008

Chief Justices, Judicial colleagues, Mr. Attorney, Mr. Treasurer, distinguished representatives of the Bar, honoured guests:

C’est un plaisir et un privilège, tous les deux, d’être ici pour célébrer l’ouverture des cours.

The Opening of the Courts Ceremony for 2008 marks a period of substantial change since last year’s opening of courts: a new time of year for the occasion, a new Chief Justice of Ontario and a new Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice.

Equally, 2008 has been a year of important changes for the Superior Court of Justice.

Along with the support and advice provided to me by Associate Chief Justice Doug Cunningham of our Court, I am extraordinarily fortunate to have the wise counsel and tremendous assistance of the Council of Regional Senior Judges in discharging my obligations as Chief Justice of the Superior Court.

In all of the 8 judicial regions of the Court, the Regional Senior Judges, or “RSJs” as we refer to them, exercise my delegated authority, to schedule and assign judges and cases. For the first time in many years, six of the eight Regional Senior Judges of the Superior Court are here with me today to mark this Opening of the Courts.

This past year marked the appointment of several new RSJs to our Court. In the Toronto Region, we welcomed Mr. Justice Edward Then, as the RSJ who filled the vacancy created when Justice Winkler was appointed Chief Justice of Ontario.

Justice Charles Hackland was recently appointed as Regional Senior Judge for the East Region of our Court, centred in Ottawa. He replaced Justice Monique Métivier, when she completed her term for that Region.

Another new member of our RSJ Council is present today. Senior Family Justice Mary Jane Hatton, was appointed last spring, following Justice David Aston’s completion of his term in that role.

We were extremely fortunate to have had the wisdom and advice of our colleagues who completed their terms on RSJ Council during the past year. They were all exceptional administrators, whose primary objective on the RSJ Council was to promote and improve the administration of justice across Ontario. Their replacements are also extremely able, and we welcome them to our Council.

You may recall at the Opening of Courts ceremony in 2007, I noted the worrying possibility that our anticipated 2 dozen or so vacancies at the Superior Court would not be filled in a timely manner. I was very concerned that this complement shortage would have a serious impact on the administration of justice in Ontario.

I am very pleased to report that, all of those vacancies have now been filled.

We are equally delighted that recent federal legislation has provided a small increase to the complement of the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario for the first time since 1995. Through this legislation, 20 additional judges were appointed to Superior Courts all across Canada, to address pressures in family proceedings. Ontario will have 8 of these 20. Six of the 8 new judges will already have been appointed and sworn-in by the end of this week.

The Superior Court is extraordinarily grateful for all of the supportive efforts, to date, by the Bar, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, and, particularly, by the Federal Minster of Justice, in addressing this challenge to our stretched judicial complement.

This is a first major step towards achieving the necessary judicial complement for all lines of business of our court – family, civil and criminal.

I have only a very short time today and can only “highlight” a very few of the Superior Court activities during the past year. However, our Court will soon publish its first Annual Report. When released, that Report will provide a much more comprehensive description of the work of the Superior Court of Justice for 2007/2008.

The Superior Court has been focussing its efforts in family law on enhancing the effectiveness of family law proceedings. Now, all family proceedings, in whatever court, operate under the same rules and forms. In 2007, under the direction of former Senior Family Judge Aston, the Superior Court continued to develop internal “best practices” for case conferencing, which is the pivotal procedure in all family proceedings. Also, the Court published several new Practice Directions to guide the Bar and the public to more effective and timely case conferences.

As another example, our Family Case Manager pilot project in Ottawa has had a very positive impact on the way in which family proceedings there are managed from the outset. The focus, in Ottawa, was on improving the service to unrepresented litigants and providing meaningful early access to the Court in family law proceedings. Our work on these initiatives, and many others, will continue throughout the coming year.

Numerous challenges remain to make family law proceedings more effective, timely and accessible to the public. As an increasingly high proportion of family law litigants are self-represented, it will continue to be my priority, and that of Senior Family Judge Hatton and RSJ Council Members, to meet these challenges in family cases.

From the efforts that our Court has made over the last year, it is clear that I, like my Chief Justice colleagues, will continue to focus on improving family law proceedings in the province. The first and immediate priority must be to improve family support services to recommended standards for all family proceedings in whatever court. The Minister of Justice’s Family Support Funding Initiative, announced September 6th, is welcome news. I anticipate that this new funding will be aimed at exactly the services identified by all Courts as a priority.

The case management of civil proceedings in our Court has continued to improve over the last year for both interlocutory and trial proceedings.

In most regions, even long trial dates are available within a reasonable time period and those are real trial dates that are being met.

Over the past year, the Civil Rules Committee has been considering the Honourable Coulter Osborne’s recommendations for civil justice reform. These reforms, if adopted, will significantly change certain aspects of the Superior Court’s work. The aim of the Report and the aim of our Court is to improve access to justice and we are on track to do just that.

It is sometimes forgotten that the Small Claims Court branch of our Court handles well over 40% of all civil proceedings in the Province. This branch of our Court is a shining example of efficiency and public access to the justice system.

Most cases in the Small Claims Court are resolved within 6 months at a very reasonable cost to the litigants. The effectiveness of this Court was recognized by Mr. Osborne, who, in his Report, recommended increasing the monetary jurisdiction of the Small Claims by 250%, from $10,000 to $25,000, to extend that efficiency to many more litigants.

I simply want to express a note of caution. We could lose that effectiveness and efficiency if the monetary jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court is extended, without the necessary and concurrent additional administrative and judicial resources to support the increased caseload. I am confident, however, that the Attorney General understands this concern and, indeed, he has undertaken to address it before any changes are implemented.

Also in respect of Small Claims Court, I am pleased to advise that our Court recently developed a new procedure that overcomes the jurisdictional difficulties inherent in contempt proceedings arising in Small Claims Court cases. The new procedure, to assist in enforcing judgments, will apply across the province, wherever it is required. This is just one more way in which our Court has made justice more accessible to the public.

In criminal matters, many criminal trials continued to be longer and more complex. Nonetheless, over the last year, our efforts to better manage all criminal cases have delivered anticipated benefits.

Our Court successfully implemented mandatory “pre-trial” conferences within 90 days of committal on every indictment coming into the Superior Court. We have already experienced positive results from that criminal case management initiative. Trial-date adjournments have been significantly reduced and we have much better trial management of the criminal matters that do proceed.

We look forward to further recommendations to achieve greater efficiencies in criminal proceedings, when the Honourable Patrick LeSage and Professor Michael Code release their report on Long Criminal Trials in the near future.

I am very pleased to report that in May, 2008, the Attorney General of Ontario and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the very first time. The MOU was crafted to clearly delineate and define the “core functions” and respective responsibilities of the Executive and Judicial Branches of government and, perhaps, most importantly, to support and foster the principle of judicial independence. Within that context, however, the Agreement provides a foundation and framework to address, systematically, our many areas of shared concern in the administration of justice.

This MOU is a seminal document because it will ensure that the relationship between both branches of government is as effective and efficient as possible. It will achieve this goal by requiring the two branches to collaborate on a host of items (e.g. standards for family justice support services, support for the court’s public website, etc.). The end result will be a better justice system that provides more timely and meaningful access for everyone. This Agreement is now publicly available through the Ministry of the Attorney General.

The past year has been very productive, with a clear focus by the Superior Court of Justice on service to the public through greater accessibility. The unwavering high standards for this Court’s jurisprudence have been maintained. What real accessibility means is providing timely hearings, supported by efficient administration, leading to effective results – all at a reasonable cost. This is our Court’s goal – C’est nôtre raison d’être!

When I say it is our Court’s goal, I truly believe that it is the goal of every one of our judges. The judges of the Superior Court of Justice have shown their dedication through their hard work to reduce the waiting times of many procedures. They have worked diligently to serve the increasing number of self-represented litigants, with the many challenges that presents for our judicial resources.

While our judges make efforts within their own sphere, these are challenging times that require the collaboration of all justice system partners to continue to generate improvements in the system.

It is clear that our Court and the Ministry of the Attorney General share the very same goal, that is, to work collaboratively to produce measurable improvement in the real accessibility I have just defined. We will continue to strive together to meet that goal for the people of Ontario.

Nous continuerons à travailler pour rendre nôtre cour plus accessible. C’est nôtre promesse aux Ontariens et Ontariennes, qui se fient sur la cour pour résoudre leurs conflits.

Our Court has done better this year than last, and we will do even better in the year ahead. This is our Court’s promise to the people of this Province who look to our Court to resolve their disputes.

Merci. Thank you.