Improved technology and better courtroom security are among the priorities for Ontario’s chief justices as the courts begin a new year.
“As we begin another court year, it is appropriate to observe that in a world where so many people are fleeing chaos and the absence of the rule of law, we are privileged to live in a country governed by the rule of law,” Ontario Chief Justice George Strathy said during his address at the annual opening of the courts ceremony in Toronto on Sept. 24.
“Our pride in our system of justice does not blind us to its shortcomings,” he added. “It makes us want to remedy those shortcomings and improve our system. We have our problems and we are acutely aware of those problems.”
In his speech, Strathy cited several of those gaps. “Family law, in particular, requires rationalization and simplification,” he said. “The social, economic, and human costs of the current system are simply unacceptable. Second, significant improvements to court technology are required to provide the public and the bar with cost-effective access to justice. Third, inadequate courthouse security at many courthouses across the province, including at our own in Toronto, put both the public and the judiciary at risk.”
Nevertheless, Strathy noted there have been improvements recently when it comes to access to justice. “At the Court of Appeal, increased funding has permitted Legal Aid Ontario to ensure that there is a legal representative for the most vulnerable by providing legal representation for all appellants with mental-health issues,” said Strathy, noting LAO is now working with the courts to fund counsel for child protection appeals.
Superior Court Chief Justice Heather Smith echoed many of Strathy’s goals, saying technology would be key to improving public access along with infrastructure investment at certain courts in the province. She noted the past year included a review of best practices aimed at ensuring more efficient scheduling.
“The challenge for the year ahead is to implement our best practices consistently across the board,” said Smith.
“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, going forward, that neither judges nor counsel will accept proceedings being rolled over to a future date without advancing the case in some meaningful way.”
Smith said a key development in the past year was the implementation of online filing in the Small Claims Court that will help lay the groundwork for improved access to the courts more generally. “Already, approximately one-third of all claims are being e-filed online,” said Smith. “With this success, we can look to expand e-filing to other areas of the court.”
But challenges remain, she said, noting some courts continue to struggle because the facilities are inadequate to deal with the caseload.
“Our patience has been tried mightily, but we continue to do everything possible to meet the litigants’ needs,” she said. “The shortage of criminal juried courtrooms in Brampton remains acute. Although critically needed, any permanent addition to the Brampton courthouse is still years away.”
Smith said that in the interim, juries chosen in Brampton are travelling to the courthouse in Kitchener, Ont. “To add to the pain, the Milton courthouse, which was intended to accommodate some of the Brampton matters, is suffering from very serious obstacles of its own while 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 must bear the toll of this extraordinary measure of transferring proceedings.”
Smith also cited the need to address security at a number of Ontario courts, “particularly where privately owned commercial properties are leased for court space.”
“I’m heartened that during the past summer months, the Ministry [of the Attorney General] has been working diligently to deliver a suitable, secure, and permanent solution for the present deficiencies,” she said.
Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve of the Ontario Court of Justice said her priorities for the next year include looking at ways to streamline processes to make the courts more efficient and timely while increasing access through modernization and technology.
“This is a time of transition and transformation for our court. We have identified and we will continue to identify innovation and modernization as hallmarks of our judicial leadership,” she said.
“We have long recognized that to be accountable to all Ontarians, our court must not only continue to provide fair and timely decision-making but we must also be committed to change.”
She said a number of recent efforts will help bring about that change, including the creation of the Ontario Court of Justice criminal modernization committee that will look at improving accessibility and implementing new technologies. “Electronic-scheduling tools for both our judges and justices of the peace are a signature step to make our court process more standardized and streamlined,” she said.
“The view is looking positive. These tools will allow us to better assign our resources and thus more effectively manage the many proceedings.
“Our approach of working collaboratively gives our court the ability to transform the challenges we face into opportunities. We will use those opportunities to reinforce our commitment to meeting the needs of the litigants we serve.”