Chief Justice Heather Forster Smith
September 14, 2009
Lieutenant Governor, David Onley, Chief Justices, Judicial colleagues, Mr. Attorney, Mr. Treasurer, distinguished representatives of the bar and Honoured guests.
C’est toujours un plaisir et un privilège, tous les deux, d’être ici pour célébrer l’ouverture des cours.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to be here to mark the start of another promising judicial year.
Access to Justice
One of the most important and most debated principles underlying our justice system in Canada today is “access to justice”.
Considerable discussion continues about the meaning of that term – “access to justice”. However, in the context of public accountability for the performance of the justice system, most agree that meaningful “access to justice” must be access that is timely, effective and affordable for everyone.
In my report on the state of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice today, I would like to highlight the continuing efforts of our Court to improve the timeliness, effectiveness and affordability of access to justice in Ontario.
Our Court is not alone in these efforts. We constantly work on a collaborative basis with all of our justice sector partners.
Justice Sector Partners
Our principal partner in the administration of justice in Ontario is the Ministry of the Attorney General and, in particular, its Court Services Division. Our other justice sector partners include the other levels of court, the Federal Government, the Law Society of Upper Canada, bar associations, Legal Aid Ontario and other professional bodies. The collaborative efforts of all our justice partners comprise an enviable model for the delivery of meaningful “access to justice”.
At the Superior Court of Justice, we have over 242 full-time judges plus supernumeraries, over 400 Deputy Judges of the Small Claims Court, numerous Case Management Masters, Masters and other judicial officials. They preside at 50 court locations, from Sarnia to L’Orignal, and from Kenora in the north to Welland in the south. Each day, every one of them is dedicated to providing justice to the people of Ontario.
Upholding the rule of law in such a large and complex jurisdiction would simply not be possible without the co-operative efforts of each body or institution that contributes to the administration of justice.
The volume and complexity of our justice system is reflected in the Court Services Division’s Annual Report, available on the Ministry’s website. This report contains a plethora of essential information and statistics about the operation of the justice system in the province. In the spring of 2009, the Superior Court of Justice published its very first Annual Report. It is publicly available on our Court’s website and provides valuable information about our Court’s work and its structure.
From these two Annual Reports, you will see that Ontario’s Superior Court receives approximately 200,000 new proceedings each year, across all lines of the Court’s business. By volume of proceedings and the numbers of court sites and judges, our Superior Court is one of the largest superior trial courts in the world!
We know that the cost of administering justice and ensuring meaningful access to the justice system is also large. But it is a cost that cannot be shirked if we want to maintain our democratic values. Indeed, we aim to manage that cost to gain the greatest possible efficiencies. This, too, requires constant vigilance and the collaborative efforts of our justice partners.
In all lines of business, the Superior Court has taken significant, proactive measures to enhance access to justice. I would like to touch on a few of those measures.
Family Law Initiatives
Although each of Ontario’s 3 courts have different areas of jurisdiction, we frequently join in common cause to address issues of mutual concern.
For example, judges from each of the three Courts are working to ensure that crown wardship appeals are heard in a timely way to better protect children and help families in crisis. Child protection continues to be a pressing priority. We continue to develop and implement best practices to move matters forward and to reduce delays at all levels, including appeals.
I also want to underscore the importance of front-end information and legal assistance for persons entering the family law system – and especially those without legal representation. In this regard, we know from the Minister’s recent announcements that he shares the Court’s concern that access to justice is weakened by inadequate support for unrepresented family law litigants.
Front-end information services empower litigants to make informed choices. Mandatory in-person information sessions are absolutely “core” to the effective implementation of any of the other very good ideas that the Attorney General is developing for family proceedings. We anticipate that continued collaboration with the Attorney General will ensure these services are available to litigants in family proceedings.
Criminal Law Initiatives
Criminal law proceedings also present shared challenges for our justice partners. Here again, we know that only together, can we meet the necessary standards for meaningful access to justice for litigants.
One of our greatest successes is the implementation of mandatory pre-trial conferences for every indictment coming into our Court. These pre-trial conferences now pinpoint the real remaining issues that need to be tried. With the support of the Attorney General, the collaborative efforts of the crowns and the criminal defence bar across the province, these pre-trial conferences now streamline criminal proceedings – resulting in resource savings, reduced costs to litigants and more timely justice.
We are also delighted that the Attorney General’s recent Justice on Target initiative is moving forward. We acknowledge the leadership role of Mr. Justice Bruce Durno of our Court on this initiative.
Civil Law Initiatives
Turning to civil law initiatives, in Ontario we have the Honourable Coulter Osborne’s thoughtful and erudite report on the Civil Justice Reform Project, which was completed in 2007. His review resulted in 81 excellent recommendations.
Over the last 2 years, the Superior Court has worked very closely with all its justice partners at the Civil Rules Committee to implement these recommendations. They include regulatory changes starting in 2010, which will extend the jurisdiction of the Superior Court’s Small Claims Court branch from $10,000 to $25,000.
The Small Claims Court is the most effective and efficient venue in the province. The vast majority of cases in Small Claims Court are heard within 6 months of being instituted. The expanded monetary jurisdiction of that Court will provide greater access to efficient, timely and affordable justice.
Similarly, we expect that the same efficiencies will be afforded to civil proceedings up to $100,000 under the expanded Simplified Procedure rule starting in January of 2010.
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)
The collaborative approach to improving the administration of justice is best exemplified by our Court’s seminal Memorandum of Understanding with the provincial Attorney General.
The MOU is a visionary document that continues to serve as the framework for governing the relationship between the Superior Court Judicial and Executive branches of government here in Ontario.
One area in which all Courts continue to be challenged is in managing self-represented litigants. They are appearing in increasing numbers before all Courts.
This issue was further exacerbated by the plight of legal aid in Ontario. The challenge of self-represented litigants in increasingly complex matters raises fundamental questions about the protection of fundamental rights.
I was absolutely delighted – as we all were – to learn that the Attorney General has committed an additional $150 million over the next four years to the legal aid system. We encourage all of our justice sector partners and the bar to work collaboratively with the Attorney General to establish priorities and to make this plan work.
Council of Regional Senior Judges
As Chief Justice, I am assisted in managing all of these issues of judicial administration by a remarkable group of individuals including Associate Chief Justice Douglas Cunningham, Senior Family Judge Mary Jane Hatton and all 8 Regional Senior Judges who are here with us today.
In the past year, our Court was pleased to welcome Justices Van Melle, Gauthier and Pierce as three new Regional Senior Judges. I want to express my thanks to their predecessors, Justices Durno, Poupore and McCartney for all of their tireless efforts to improve the administration of justice.
My role as Chief Justice of the largest superior trial court in Canada is very challenging. But it is made immeasurably less so because of the diligent efforts and steadfast commitment to serve the public, made by every judge of this Court.
As we start the new court year, I know the public will continue to repose its confidence in our judiciary to deliver justice in the most accessible and effective way possible.
Merci de cette occasion de faire cette présentation. J’èspere que cette occasion donnera, au publique, une meilleure compréhension des efforts récents, de la cour, d’ameliorer l’access à la justice.
Merci. Thank you.