Remarks of Chief Justice Heather Smith
Superior Court of Justice
Opening of the Courts
Toronto, September 9, 2014
Lieutenant Governor Onley, Chief Justices, Associate Chief Justices, judicial colleagues, Madam Attorney, representative of the federal Minister of Justice, Madam Treasurer, members of the Bar, distinguished guests and members of the public:
I extend a very warm welcome to everyone here, marking the beginning of a new court year. It is a pleasure at this Opening of the Courts to be on the dais with two pivotal figures in the Ontario justice system. They are at divergent points in their respective, inspiring, judicial careers. Justice Strathy is fresh to his new responsibilities as Chief Justice of Ontario, having already distinguished himself as a strong and respected trial and appellate judge. Nostalgically, Chief Justice Bonkalo will soon be completing her term on the Ontario Court of Justice, having been an effective advocate for continuous improvement of Ontario’s justice system. I want to extend my congratulations and very best wishes to both of them.
Before my annual update, I want to highlight the changes to our court’s own executive since last year. We are delighted to have welcomed four outstanding new members to RSJ Council:
- Justice Michelle Fuerst, appointed RSJ for the Central East Region last October;
- Justice Geoffrey Morawetz, appointed RSJ for the Toronto Region in December;
- Justice George Czutrin, appointed Senior Family Judge of our Court in December; and
- Justice Robbie Gordon, appointed RSJ for the Northeast Region in January of this year.
On a court as large as ours, we will always experience judicial vacancies. In the past, the federal Minister of Justice filled these vacancies in a timely manner. Regrettably, this year is quite different. Today we have 20 outstanding vacancies on our court that have been accumulating since October 2013. An additional 10 vacancies will arise by the end of this year – 9 of them family judges.
We advised the Minister almost one year ago about this significant number of looming family vacancies. If not filled promptly, we will have a total of 30 judicial vacancies by the end of 2014.
The seamless filling of judicial vacancies is critical to meeting our court’s obligation to Ontarians – children and families in particular. I urge the Minister of Justice to act with dispatch to fill our court’s outstanding vacancies. I also trust and expect that new appointees to the Family Court branch will have the family expertise and skills to step confidently into their new role.
In family proceedings, on very positive note, the Attorney General and I have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to fund per diem payments for Dispute Resolution Officers (DROs) at all existing DRO sites. Except in Toronto, the experienced family lawyers who serve as DROs have generously provided their valuable services to litigants pro bono. The Ministry expects to complete the new DRO empanelment process and begin payment to all DROs at these locations as of January 2015.
I sincerely thank you, Madam Attorney, and Senior Family Justice Czutrin, for supporting this essential program. And through you, Madam Treasurer, I thank every member of the bar who has served as a DRO during the pilot phase.
Child Prioritization and NAC Implementation
Next, we continue to meet our priority objective of improving processes and outcomes for families in crisis and children at risk. This initiative reinforces and implements the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters’ report and recommendations. Senior Family Justice Czutrin, in particular, has worked diligently to develop scheduling best practices for family cases, which we will implement for our 2015 court schedules. These best practices will ensure that every event in a family proceeding is timely, meaningful and moves the case forward. We will also complete our development of best practices for child protection proceedings.
Our court has supported Family Rules initiatives to streamline and simplify family proceedings, particularly early financial disclosure. We also undertook a multi-pronged approach to raise the profile of family law and child protection matters among our future lawyers. We reached out to law school deans to expand their family curricula and include a family clinical component. We collaborated with the Ontario Court of Justice and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) to expand the Walsh Family Law Moot to include a new negotiation moot for 2015. Both aspects of the moot are named for the Honourable George Walsh – a former judge of this court, and former “dean” of the family law Bar. We have committed our court to his philosophy of “resolution where possible; if not, timely adjudication”.
Turning to civil matters, I am absolutely delighted to report that the first phase of the GTA Civil Justice Review, led by RSJ Morawetz, has yielded results that are nothing short of outstanding – particularly for Toronto. Last year’s unacceptable wait times for civil long motions and long trials are now “history”!
The proof is in the Toronto numbers: a year ago, the delay to a short civil motion was more than four months and the delay to a long civil motion was approximately 11 months. Justice Morawetz advises, and I am grateful and delighted to report, that both short and long civil motions are now available in a few short weeks. A year ago, the delay to certain long civil trials, such as a complex class action or commercial trial, was up to 22 months. Today, any long civil trial is available in six months or less.
When the Bar organizations spoke last year, we listened. RSJ Morawetz sought the Bar’s collaboration and the sound advice of his GTA judicial colleagues in tackling the core problems. New approaches were devised. New practice directions were developed to eliminate counterproductive booking practices and other inefficient procedures. Our real challenge for the coming year is to sustain these exceptional results – a goal that will be virtually impossible without a full judicial complement.
I extend my personal thanks to the organizations and individuals who joined our efforts and were open to change. Their meaningful participation is in the very best traditions of the Bar. I am confident that Phase Two of the Civil Justice Review, which includes a review of Masters’ proceedings, will identify strategies to create even greater efficiencies.
Additionally, this year Associate Chief Justice Frank Marrocco led a project to identify Rules of Civil Procedure that could be easily streamlined. This included amending the notice provisions and timelines to dismiss unprosecuted civil actions. These amendments were approved at the June Civil Rules Committee meeting.
The timeliness of our criminal proceedings continues to be monitored closely and managed astutely by each RSJ. Our judicial scheduling efforts are seriously hampered, however, by our large number of outstanding judicial vacancies and the critical lack of criminal jury courtrooms in key locations.
First Nations representation on juries and the larger issues identified by the Honourable Frank Iacobucci in his report remain a grave concern for our court. The Honourable Erv Stach is my representative on the Ministry’s committee tasked with implementing the report and recommendations. With the committee’s and others’ efforts, we hope we will turn the corner on this issue in the coming year.
I remain tremendously proud of the quality and timeliness of the over 10,000 judgments and endorsements issued by our court each year. This achievement is to the resounding credit of the more than 300 dedicated judges who serve on this court.
While we celebrate this year’s hard work and success we must also confront a number of looming challenges. Here I speak of the court’s severely deficient facilities in the exploding communities west of Toronto. They lack the facilities required to discharge our court’s core functions – criminal jury courtrooms, jury assembly rooms, and settlement conference rooms.
There were agreed, approved and funded plans for an immediate short-term solution to the dire criminal facility shortages in Brampton, Barrie and Newmarket. The interim modular solutions for Barrie and Newmarket are already on site and almost complete. Inconceivably, the Ministry appears to have unilaterally abandoned the interim modular solution for Brampton. Instead, the Ministry is now considering a more permanent facility that will take years to deliver.
This startling change of plan can only result in continued and worsening delays for criminal jury trials. I have spoken with the Attorney General, personally, about the imperative to revive the original “immediate” Brampton modular solution. Promised three years ago, it was to have been delivered by now.
I also advised the Attorney General about the deplorable condition of the Milton courthouse and our clear need for new facilities there. We hope that the Attorney General and the Minister for Infrastructure Ontario will recognize this pressing priority and will deliver a timely solution to the untenable situation in Milton.
The security of the public, staff, counsel and judges at our courthouses has weighed on everyone’s mind in the aftermath of the Brampton shooting. Our court’s Local Administrative Judges have worked to establish local court security committees at all 50 Superior Court locations across the province. Those committees are now established, have held meetings, and are developing the local court security plans required by the Police Services Act.
Like many court facilities throughout the province, Toronto has its own unique set of security issues. Chief of Police Bill Blair responded promptly to our concerns and some new security features are already in place in the Superior Court’s “Osgoode Precinct”. Others will be part of a pending holistic review.
Without doubt, we still have work to do! I assure you I will not compromise in meeting our shared objective to have timely and appropriate responses to any courthouse security issue.
Each year, challenges are resolved and new challenges present. The one constant is our court’s commitment to continuous improvement. Setting our priorities each year, and reflecting on our results at the Opening of the Courts, is an excellent exercise towards that goal. It also reenergizes and renews us to address the remaining very real challenges
Our court’s prime responsibility is to deliver meaningful, accessible and affordable justice. Today, we celebrate our successes. Tomorrow we will turn our minds to the challenges at hand.