Opening of the Courts – 2013

Chief Justice Heather Forster Smith
Opening of the Courts
Toronto, September 24, 2013

For many years now, the Superior Court in Ontario has keenly embraced the singular objective of delivering a timely, accessible, justice system.  This annual public occasion continues to offer the perfect opportunity to review the excellent achievements and progress towards that goal.  In addition, I want to take this opportunity to mark the changes and the contributions made by members of the executive of this court.

In June, all members of our court were delighted with the appointment of Justice Frank Marrocco as Associate Chief Justice.  With his background as skilled counsel in private practice, his successful term as Treasurer of the Law Society and his judicial years of presiding over complex trials in Toronto, our new ACJ already enjoys the confidence of his judicial colleagues and the Bar.  His myriad skills and abilities will support him in his new role, and all members of our court’s RSJ Council look forward to working closely with him as we tackle the continuing challenges of our justice system.

We are the largest superior court in the country.  Also, we have a unique administrative model with a Regional Senior Judge for each of the court’s eight regions.  These RSJs are pivotal to the exclusively judicial responsibility of scheduling and assigning judges in each region.  This year, two of our Regional Senior Judges, Justice Edward Then and Justice Michael Brown, who lead two of the most populous and busiest regions – Toronto and Central East, respectively – will have completed their terms.  Both have been stalwarts of the court’s executive council, providing me with their exceedingly thoughtful and practical advice on a host of issues.

I am grateful to both Justice Then and Justice Brown for their dedication to improving the administration of the Superior Court, and for their steadfast leadership of their respective regions.  We await the naming of their replacements and each has agreed to remain at the helm until a new RSJ is appointed.

This is the last public opportunity for me to thank the Honourable Warren Winkler – as he steps down as Chief Justice of Ontario in early December, 2013 – for the contribution he has made in that role over the last 6 years.  I have no doubt he will continue to contribute to the justice system and I wish him every success in all his future undertakings.

The Superior Court’s clear focus is entirely “in sync” with the unambiguous call for “improved access to justice” that has echoed from every quarter of the justice system and beyond.  For several years, “access to justice” has been the theme of innumerable press articles, speeches, think tanks, studies and reports, emanating from the Chief Justice of Canada, the CBA and OBA, the Law Society, the Ontario Law Commission, governments, legal assistance organizations and litigants.

The need has been obvious, and every organization is working diligently within its own mandate to meet that pressure.  I am tremendously proud of the initiatives and the contribution of the Superior Court towards the goal of true access to justice.  I want to take a few moments to highlight the achievements of the past year.

Bringing real access to justice to family matters continues to be a very strong priority for our court.  To achieve success, our family justice system must excel at minimizing conflict, encouraging collaboration, and providing early resolutions for families in need.  It also must be accessible, fair, proportional, and integrated with the other services already available in the community.

Of all the reports on access to justice released this year, one of the most important was the report by the Family Justice Working Group of the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters.  This group was chaired by Supreme Court Justice Tom Cromwell at the invitation of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.  The Working Group report, entitled Meaningful Change for Family Justice: Beyond Wise Words, recommended numerous improvements for genuine access to justice in family proceedings.

As the Family Justice Working Group Report affirmed loudly and clearly, nowhere is access to justice more important than in family disputes!  Our court was especially proud to learn that several of the report’s recommendations directly referenced our court’s existing family practices and initiatives as models for improving access to justice.  Ontario was commended for the expansion of early front-end services in the family justice system to all court sites, early mandatory information sessions for family litigants, and the array of available dispute resolution options, including free mediation and legal advice, to help families resolve their disputes.

As I announced at last year’s Opening of Courts, our court is resolutely determined to prioritize children-in-need, especially in child protection proceedings.  Throughout the past year we have engaged virtually every one of our justice partners – among them the law deans, the Law Society, the family Bar, the OACAS and the Children’s Lawyer – to kick-start our Prioritizing Children initiative, exactly as planned.  The reception we have received from every one of these organizations has been overwhelmingly positive and the enthusiasm for the project has been palpable.

To date, we have made significant progress, starting at the law school level, from requiring that law students obtain at least some exposure to family law, to making practical family law and child protection courses available to interested law students.  This education will be supported by greater opportunities for law students to receive clinical training that focuses on child protection and available family justice resources.  Senior members of the family Bar will be asked to provide greater mentorship in this area.  And, we have firm commitments from our partnering organizations to tackle the “systemic challenges” that have limited our ability, to date, to quickly resolve proceedings involving children-at-risk.

On a very positive note, we are already seeing the benefits of the expansion of front-end family services to all 50 Superior Court sites.  Through the Mandatory Information Program (or MIP), separating families across the province have access to essential family law information at the very outset of their cases.  These litigants are now empowered to make more informed choices about resolving their family matters.  This year, by making some necessary adjustments, we ensured that this initiative remained robust and effective.

Family litigants in 7 family court locations have also benefited from the proven Dispute Resolution Officer (or DRO) program.  It uses seasoned family lawyers to facilitate the timely resolution of motions to change final orders.  This program delivers an early informed assessment of the litigants’ case, an early attempt to resolve the issues, and promotes motion readiness if the issues cannot be resolved.

I have continued to urge Attorney General Gerretsen that funding is needed right away to provide Toronto’s modest, per diem, stipend to all the dedicated DRO lawyers at all 6 sites outside Toronto.  I know I am joined by the Bar, which has been tremendously supportive of this program, in advocating that DRO funding be delivered for this proven initiative.

While we have experienced no significant change in the number of civil proceedings commenced or added to the trial list this year, nevertheless, some centres have had increased wait times to the hearing of long motions and long trials.  This issue is already being addressed as our top priority by me, the Associate Chief Justice, and the Regional Senior Judges of the GTA regions affected by this trend.

Certainly, the Bar has a very important role to play in supporting the court’s efforts to control overburdened civil motions and trial lists in the GTA.  The Bar’s input and insight into these challenges will be most welcome, and its collaboration will be key in resolving this issue.  When counsel seek trial or motion dates for matters that are not truly ready for hearing, earlier dates become unavailable for matters that are ready to proceed.

On the court’s side, we are engaged in an internal review of our judicial scheduling and assignment practices to identify best practices and to maximize the scheduling of our judicial complement.  We are poised to take further steps to ensure that only motions and trials that are truly ready to proceed are placed on the appropriate civil motions or trial list.

In Toronto, RSJ Then has already re-engaged the civil Bench and Bar Committee to support our judicial commitment to reduce the civil wait times for long motions and trials.  At my request, and with RSJ Then’s full support, Justice Geoff Morawetz has generously agreed to lead the initiative, which will extend to the whole GTA to achieve our goal.  I could not be more delighted, or more confident, that we have the right person for the job, given Justice Morawetz’s leadership of the Commercial List, which is the “gold standard” for timeliness.

We have already begun meeting with leaders of the Bar – the Treasurer, executive members of the Toronto Lawyers’ Association, the OBA and the Advocates Society – to develop a collaborative approach to this problem.  As a court, with Justice Morawetz leading this initiative, we will not rest until we achieve reasonable time periods to the hearing of all civil long motions and long trials in the GTA.  This goal, too, we see as an essential deliverable for real access to justice in civil proceedings.

Turning to the Small Claims Court, I can report, happily, that it remains a model of timely, effective, and affordable justice in Ontario, handling almost 45% of all civil proceedings filed in the province.  This remarkably busy court continues to be well-supported by close to 400 able deputy judges.  I commend them and the staff of the Small Claims Court for their continued excellence in serving the people of Ontario.  Again, our thanks to the members of the Bar for their outstanding commitment as deputy judges adjudicating cases in this important forum.

Regarding criminal proceedings, this year we revamped the criminal rules and forms, and supported the development of the current e-format for filling-in criminal forms.  I am satisfied that our scheduling efforts continued to deliver timely hearings for criminal cases.  Nonetheless, we remain vigilant.

Recently, we were delighted to receive some very positive news from the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services on a matter that impacts on our criminal case load.  The Sarnia Jail, which was slated to close shortly, will remain open.  The two criminal trial courts appealed to that Minister and to the Attorney General, to not close that jail.  In our view, this was a pure access to justice issue too.  Prisoners would have had to travel up to 5 hours, each day, for hearings scheduled at the Sarnia Courthouse.  I extend my very great thanks to the ministries involved in the issue, for understanding the concerns expressed collaboratively by all the stakeholders, and for having the courage to reverse the government’s initial firm decision to close the facility.

The Bench and Bar Advisory Committee on access to French language services released its report, entitled “Access to Justice in French”, in late June 2012.  Over the past year, our Court has work very hard to implement all of the report’s recommendations that fall within the Court`s authority.  In addition, I recently appointed a “judicial point-person” in each region to address all French language issues within that region.

Today, when we speak about improving access to justice, we hope that effectively harnessing technology can help us meet the challenge.  In this regard, our court has led and implemented two significant technology-based initiatives in the past year.  First, with the support of the Ontario Court of Justice, our court developed a protocol that allows all parties to easily access copies of the court’s digital audio recordings.  Second, we crafted and implemented a court-wide policy that permits the use of electronic devices in the courtroom for parties and their counsel, and for members of the press, because they function as the eyes and ears of the public.

The details of both of these policies are readily available on the Superior Court’s website, which brings me to a further successful initiative this year.  Our court’s website is being entirely revamped with the goal of providing much more practical information for the public about all facets of the court’s operation.  Our most recent bi-annual report, released last November, is available on our website.  I highly recommend this report as a valuable source of information on the many initiatives I am describing today.

We eagerly await the technology-based initiatives that the Attorney General has planned.  In the meantime, our judges have proactively joined with the Bar to move towards the kind of “e-filing” system that will ultimately become the backbone for the administration of justice.  I am convinced that the thoughtful and detailed standards developed for delivering e-documents in Commercial List and Divisional Court cases, will become the standard for the true “e-filing” system of the future.  Both of these e-document initiatives now permit judges to search and review filed material much more easily, promoting greater effectiveness in judicial decision-making.  These are wonderful progressive initiatives that permit our court to move towards a comprehensive “e-filing” environment.  We thank Court Services Division staff for their generous collaborative efforts in this transition period.

I turn next to our court’s facilities and the longstanding and dire need for more criminal jury courtrooms and supporting facilities in Barrie, Brampton and Newmarket – where the populations have literally exploded over the last decade.  The Superior Court’s ability to deliver timely criminal jury hearings in those locations has been directly hampered by insufficient facilities for criminal jury cases, including jury courtrooms, jury assembly rooms, jury deliberation rooms and judicial retiring rooms.

As I reported last year, our court worked very closely with the Ministry of the Attorney General to develop innovative and fiscally responsible solutions for the jury facilities required at each of the three sites.  We are anxiously and impatiently awaiting the actual delivery of these three desperately needed new modular facilities.  I extend my sincere thanks to Lynne Wagner, ADAG of the Court Services Division and her staff, as well as the staff of the Facilities Management Branch, for being so responsive to the Court’s needs in the current fiscal climate.

I am also delighted to report that, this year, our court moved to the magnificent new Waterloo Regional County Courthouse in Kitchener.  The Ministry of the Attorney General showcased this building’s most impressive design at its official opening, just yesterday.  I look forward to the official openings of impressive new courthouses in Quinte and St. Thomas in the months ahead.

Last June’s RSJ Council meeting was convened in Thunder Bay and included a site visit to the absolutely spectacular new Thunder Bay courthouse, which is expected to open in 2014.  The plans and contracts for these wonderful buildings were executed in much more favourable economic times, and our court is grateful to the Ministry of the Attorney General for seeing them through to completion.

In everything we do, this court’s primary objective is to promote timely access to fair and impartial justice.  Our court’s executive members are energized by the opportunities and possibilities generated by our focus on this goal.  We know that, as a court, we cannot address all the issues of access to justice on our own.  We will continue to address every aspect of the issues that are on our watch, but we are counting on others to do their part too.  Together, I know we can achieve our shared goal of improved access to justice.  I am heartened by the reception we have received from all of the institutions and organizations we have approached to assist us.

In our endeavours to improve access to justice, we cannot forget – even for one moment – that public confidence in the courts is not a guaranteed commodity.  We must relentlessly nurture, value and earn that confidence.  It is the underpinning of a civil society.  The people of Ontario who turn to the justice system to resolve their disputes deserve nothing less.