REMARKS OF CHIEF JUSTICE HEATHER SMITH
SUPERIOR COURT OF JUSTICE
OPENING OF THE COURTS
TORONTO, SEPTEMBER 24, 2015
Greetings and Introduction
Lieutenant Governor Dowdeswell, Chief Justices, judicial colleagues – all, Madam Attorney, Madam Treasurer, members of the Bar, paralegals, distinguished guests.
Je vous souhaite, à tous et à toutes, la bienvenue à I’occasion du début de cette nouvelle année judiciaire. It is my pleasure to participate, once again, in the Opening of the Courts ceremony and to provide brief highlights of the Superior Court of Justice’s activities in the past very full year.
I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve and new Associate Chief Justice, Peter DeFreitas of the Ontario Court of Justice. This is my first public opportunity to wish them both great success in their new roles.
I turn now to the events of the busy year that is behind us, and what a year it was!
During the past year the Superior Court’s judicial complement changed dramatically. To our great relief and after waiting more than a year in some cases, the Superior Court received the 39 eagerly-awaited judicial appointments to fill that number of outstanding judicial vacancies. In particular, the children and families in Ontario will now have the judicial resources they require, as nine of the vacancies were filled with new members of the Family Court Branch.
Good news, however, can be bittersweet. During this same period, seventeen of our most experienced and respected judges retired. Between judicial appointments and retirements, more than 20% of the faces on our court have changed over the past 12 months. Few institutions, public or private, will ever undergo that degree of change in that short a time span.
This year, our court welcomed two executive appointments from our existing judicial ranks – Regional Senior Justice Douglas Shaw in the Northwest Region and Regional Senior Justice Peter Daley in the Central West Region. Both new RSJs have taken quickly to their roles. They are already excellent leaders in their respective regions and valued members of our Executive Council.
Best Practices Initiatives (Civil and Family)
Almost two years ago, our court began a wholesale review of its practices for every court event in each of the three areas of the court’s work – criminal, civil and family. With significant time and dedicated efforts, we have now completed that review. We endorsed formal sets of standards and Best Practices. We then developed Implementation Guidelines to support the best and most efficient scheduling and assigning of our court’s complement and its judicial workload.
The challenge for the years ahead is to implement our Best Practices consistently across our court. The single enduring principle that underpins each set of Best Practices is that “every step in a proceeding must meaningfully move the case forward”. We expect that, going forward, neither judges nor counsel will accept proceedings being rolled-over to a future date, without advancing the case in some meaningful way.
Last year, I acknowledged that our greatest challenge in Toronto would be to sustain the Civil Justice Review’s stunning reduction in wait times for civil long motions and trials. At that time, the delay to a civil long motion had been reduced from almost a year to just a few weeks, and the almost two year delay to a complex civil trial was down to less than six months.
Today, I can report that short and long motions before a judge continue to be available in Toronto in very short time frames. Other civil proceedings are available in equally good time. Every effort is being made to maintain and surpass the tough goal we set, and we are succeeding.
Throughout the past year, a number of the Toronto Case Management Masters have given a big boost to civil proceedings in Newmarket, Brampton and Milton. The Masters circuited to those centres on a fixed schedule each month, holding case conferences, hearing motions, and handling pretrial conferences. These Masters have been a highly valued and very welcome new resource for the extremely busy Central East and Central West regions.
In the Small Claims Court, litigants across Ontario can now file their claims electronically, online. This highly welcomed innovation was made available throughout Ontario in March of 2015. Already, approximately one-third (32%) of all claims are being e-filed online. Ontario now has an effective e-filing system in the Small Claims Court. I extend my most sincere appreciation and congratulations to Ministry of the Attorney General staff for implementing this wonderful access to justice initiative. With this success, we can look to expand e-filing to other areas of the court.
Two years ago I announced that our court had just embarked on an initiative aimed to prioritize children – our justice system’s most vulnerable participants. I can say confidently that children in family matters are our highest priority. They are better served by our court today than ever before.
Huge credit goes to Senior Family Justice George Czutrin, supported by dedicated members of the Court, for their unstinting efforts to perfect the Family and Child Protection Best Practices and related Implementation Guidelines. Driven by his passion to transform Family proceedings in the Superior Court, Justice Czutrin travelled throughout the province, preaching and persuading any remaining skeptics about the proven results of sticking to the Best Practices, which went into effect April 1 and May 1, 2015. Without any doubt, these practices are the best and quickest road to the accessible, efficient and cost effective family system we are all striving for.
Often, good news doesn’t make the cut in the newsroom, or on the press’s “front” pages or “home” pages. If I appear to have skipped over our important criminal work, it is only because it continues to function so well in the face of constant challenges. Our Court developed best practices for criminal matters five years ago and we have consistently adhered to them.
These practices, based on timely, mandatory and comprehensive pre-trial conferences on every criminal indictment, have allowed us to stay “just ahead of the curve”, to deliver real trial dates. In our busiest criminal centres, trial dates are more extended, but in most centres trial dates are available in about six months. This year, of approximately 3600 pending criminal cases, only seven Askov applications for unreasonable delay succeeded, and not one of those because a judge or courtroom was unavailable.
However, the lack of adequate court facilities to meet our responsibilities in certain court locations continues to plague us. Our patience has been tried mightily, but we continue to do everything possible to meet litigants’ needs. The shortage of criminal jury courtrooms in Brampton remains acute. Although critically needed, any permanent addition to the Brampton courthouse is still years away. As an interim solution, juries chosen in Brampton are being transported to the excellent jury courtroom facilities in the new Waterloo Courthouse in Kitchener.
To add to the pain, the Milton courthouse, which was intended to accommodate some overflow of Brampton matters, is suffering from serious obstacles of its own. Orangeville, also designated to accommodate the Brampton overflow, is still not available on a regular basis. We understand that jurors, witnesses, counsel, the accused and their families, all bear the toll of this extraordinary measure of transferring proceedings out of Brampton. At assignment court, all parties are advised of the possibility that their trial may be transferred – but only when it will serve the best interests of the administration of justice.
Court security remains very challenging at several Superior Court locations, particularly where privately-owned commercial properties are leased as court space by Infrastructure Ontario. In Toronto, we have worked with the Attorney General and the Toronto Police over the past year to address and improve security at these premises, to the extent possible. The current leased premises for family and civil matters in Toronto will never be a permanent response to the necessary and agreed standards for a safe, secure, courthouse facility for the public and the judiciary. I am heartened that, during the past several months, the Ministry has been working diligently to deliver a suitable, secure and permanent solution for the present deficiencies.
French Language Services
Notre cour a toujours fourni les services de nos juges en français, tel que requis. With reasonable notice, our court has always maintained the capacity to hear any matter in French, anywhere in the province. The federal Minister’s office continues to respond very conscientiously when we identify the need for a bilingual judge to fill a vacancy. Of the nine judicial vacancies filled in Ottawa this year, six of the nine appointees are fluently bilingual.
Our court shares Attorney General Meilleur’s strong commitment to French language justice services. Justice Julie Thorburn continues her excellent work as our court’s representative on the Ontario Attorney General’s French Language Services Bench and Bar Committee. In May, Justices Julie Thorburn and Johanne Lafrance Cardinal led our court’s partnership with the Ministry in its launch of the Ottawa pilot project to deliver seamless access to justice in French.
Our most recent Annual Report, covering the calendar years 2013 and 2014, fully documents many other recent court activities. The report’s theme is “Seizing the Initiative Towards Excellence”. It reflects the Superior Court’s “can do” attitude, particularly in times of government fiscal restraint.
We have always worked collaboratively and cooperatively with the Attorney General to deliver justice services in the most efficient, effective way possible. Nonetheless, we also understand that the Ministry is not immediately able to deliver all the changes required to create a modern court. In this context, our court seized the initiative to implement change in those areas within our exclusive authority. The projects we implemented required the investment of time, energy and thoughtful consideration, but not money.
These court-initiated projects are detailed in our Annual Report. Given the short time I have today, with some immodesty, I recommend this very handsome and informative report to all of you. It is readily available on our court’s website.
The judiciary and the government are challenged to deliver a modern and accessible court system in the face of limited and diminishing resources. I want to particularly thank Court Services Division’s ADAG, Lynne Wagner, for her leadership and her unfailing candour and professionalism in dealing with our court on these important and difficult issues.
Je voudrais que la procureure générale sache que la Cour supérieure fournira toujours son meilleur conseil au ministère. Moreover, we will always work collaboratively with the Ministry to reach our shared goals.
With our judicial complement at almost full strength for the first time in years, and with the capable staff in the Office of the Chief Justice and in every courthouse across the province supporting us, the Superior Court is poised for the coming year’s work with confidence and renewed energy! We expect to build on our successes and to continue improving the delivery of justice services in every way that this court can.
Merci. Thank you.