Remarks of Chief Justice Heather Smith
September 13, 2011
Merci, juge en chef Winkler, de l’occasion de réfléchir sur les événements et les succès de la année passée.
This year has been a year of real achievement for the Superior Court – a year of feasible, practical and tangible deliverables for the public. In these uncertain times, I venture to say that this is just what was needed.
For several years now, I have targeted a significant portion of my Opening of the Courts remarks to family law proceedings in our court. My remarks included cautious optimism along with a fervent wish for faster progress towards our ultimate goal.
I know that our court’s approach to effective and accessible family proceedings has differed from other suggested approaches. I have great respect for these differing opinions. However, we have great confidence that our approach is both sound and the best approach, and that it deserves a solid chance to establish its worth. Remarkably, that chance is now at hand!
Our goal has been consistent and focussed. Our goal was to obtain a full and comprehensive set of front-end support services for family litigants at every single superior court location across the province. Ideally, those front-end services at each court site would include:
- an Information and Referral Coordinator (or IRC),
- a Mandatory Information Program (or MIP),
- mediation services,
- legal aid duty counsel,
- legal advice counsel,
- a supervised access centre,
- court support, and
- liaison with community resources.
Strangely, or perhaps ironically, in this year of economic downturn and setbacks in so many areas, both our goal and much of its ideal are being realized as I speak. The Attorney General of Ontario has embarked upon a tremendous expansion of front-end family justice services across the entire province. These services include Mandatory Information Programs, mediation services and the support of an Information and Referral Coordinator. Implementation committees, composed of members of the local bar, the judiciary from both the Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Justice and representatives of the Ministry of the Attorney General, have worked diligently and unstintingly, to put each of those front-end services in place at every court site across the province. How far we have come! And what a difference a year makes!
I cannot commend the Attorney General and his Ministry enough for their efforts – especially in these difficult times – to realize “the full suite of essential services” for every family law litigant in our court. Deputy Minister Segal, you have an amazing and highly professional staff who have helped deliver all of these integrated services in a remarkably short, one year, turnaround time.
I am also extremely grateful for the professionalism of virtually every local law association across the province and for the dedication of those lawyers who joined us in this ambitious plan to provide full front-end services. Equally, I extend my thanks to the Treasurer for the Law Society of Upper Canada for her tangible support of the lawyers involved. The Law Society has offered valuable Continuing Professional Development credits for participation in the initiative. Lawyers in many centres have generously committed their time to presenting the mandatory information program sessions. In our court’s view, the MIP is the essential first step towards meaningful access and greater effectiveness in family proceedings.
At the moment, the availability of Dispute Resolution Officers (or DROs) is not a formal part of this initiative. However, members of the Bar at court sites in and close to the GTA have provided DRO services – in many cases on a pro bono basis. The court appreciates the valuable contribution of these counsel. The DROs have established their great effectiveness in resolving family litigation issues at a very early stage.
In each region, the Superior Court’s “lead” judges for the family services initiative have contributed significant time to the planning phase. Our judges are heartened and spurred on by the efforts of all of our partners to deliver these very necessary services. I want to express my sincere thanks to our lead judges, and in particular to Senior Family Justice Harper, for the leadership they have shown in this endeavour.
The way that the bench, the bar and the Ministry have pulled together on this initiative has been nothing short of inspiring!! And most importantly, this initiative will greatly benefit all family litigants in Ontario.
Our court’s report in respect of criminal proceedings is not quite as dramatic as that of family. Nevertheless, huge challenges are being addressed here, as well.
The Superior Court is required to handle a growing number of long, complex criminal trials. The federal Minister of Justice knows this and has sought the advice of experts in the field, like our own Justice Michael Code and former Chief Justice Patrick Lesage, on how best to address this issue. The Minister and his government delivered a legislative response to assist the courts in managing those trials. Bill C-2 came into force just a month ago, and our court is keen to use that legislation to its best advantage.
The Superior Court is already tackling the issues that impede long and complex trials. Under the leadership of Toronto’s Regional Senior Judge, Ed Then, judges with extensive criminal expertise have developed a number of new administrative approaches, including scheduling more judges to handle consolidated criminal trial lists. Toronto has the greatest number of these cases and our new approaches will be implemented, in tandem with the new legislation, in Toronto, this fall term. For some time now, pre-trial conferences have been conducted, wherever possible, by very experienced criminal judges. These judges attempt resolution of the case; otherwise, they work hard to narrow trial issues and to render the trial much more efficient.
The criminal jury – part of the Canadian constitutional guarantee – features only in the Superior Court in this province. When the criminal jury system faces new challenges, our court is uniquely and keenly affected, as it has been this past year. I commend Attorney General Bentley for his own Ministry’s jury review process and his government’s appointment of the Honourable Frank Iacobucci to examine the current practices for assembling jury panels.
I also want to congratulate the Attorney General on some wonderful new facilities – the delivery of the new Durham Courthouse, and the construction of the Kitchener, Thunder Bay, St. Thomas and Quinte Courthouses, all of which will splendidly support the criminal jury workload of the court. Nonetheless, we have an ever increasing and complex criminal jury workload in some of our busiest and most populous centres. As a result, the critical inadequacy of court facilities in those locations now looms large!
Despite judicial diligence and the greatest possible administrative efficiency, the capacity of the Brampton Courthouse to deal with pending criminal jury proceedings has hit a wall. The situation is dire in the Newmarket Courthouse and even more dire in the Barrie Courthouse. The capable and ready judicial complement, literally, has no more space to conduct proceedings.
To effectively address the challenge at these locations, our court’s first pressing requirement is securing the necessary court space to conduct all pending criminal jury trials.
As I listened to the leading thinkers of the common law world at a conference early this summer, the Ontarians, there, came away with a justifiable pride in our civil justice system in Ontario. Not just once, but several times, during the course of the program, different luminaries spoke about how Ontario has “gotten it right”, in respect of the civil process, and costs in particular. How satisfying to know that the other common law jurisdictions – even the United Kingdom – look to us and our rules of procedure as an exemplar.
In the past year, across the province of Ontario, the number of civil proceedings filed in the Superior Court decreased, while correspondingly, the number of Small Claims Court proceedings increased. With its enhanced monetary jurisdiction to $25,000, and its over 400 Deputy Judges, our widely-renowned Small Claims Court model truly delivers affordable, timely justice.
Supported by the Ministry of the Attorney General, our court continues to advance its use of technology. Digital audio recorders are in many courthouses now and will be standard in every court house by the end of this calendar year. Judges will have compatible software, on their refreshed computers, that will enhance their ability to prepare judgments using the digital recordings. The computer refresh for judges will begin at year end and our judges will take great benefit of the upgraded technology that accompanies their delivery. This digital capacity will also enhance the Ministry’s production of timely and very accurate transcripts of court proceedings to better serve the courts and the public.
I am tremendously proud of the work of the judges of this court in the context of the successes and challenges presented this year. The quality of the Superior Court’s judgments continues to meet the highest standards, which remain the hallmark of this court.
With rare exceptions, the more than 10,000 Superior Court decisions delivered annually speak to this court’s creditable record in recording and tracking reserved judgments, to ensure their timely release. We know that a few types of reserve judgments – like costs orders and summary conviction appeal decisions – proved more difficult to track than other types of pending decisions. However, we have already developed a new set of procedures to ensure that even these reserved decisions will be identified, recorded and tracked, for release in a timely way.
As in each year’s report on this occasion, the Superior Court is proud to mark its accomplishments – many of which are highlighted in the 20th anniversary edition of our court’s report, published in the spring and hosted on our court’s website.
Our successes materialize through the determined efforts of our very able and conscientious judges, who are aided by a very professional Court Services staff.
Administering a court of this size and scope, over the 8 regions of Ontario, would be impossible without the diligence and resoluteness of the court’s remarkable executive – Associate Chief Justice Doug Cunningham, the 8 Regional Senior Judges and the Senior Family Judge. I am truly grateful to the court’s “executive” for the sage advice and wise counsel they unfailingly impart to me and to the judges of our court. Collectively, we are engaged in a single common pursuit – the best possible justice system for the Ontarians we serve.
Je vous remercie pour l’occasion de présenter le rapport annuel de la Cour supérieure de justice de l’Ontario.