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New act to reform court administration and rules

|Written By Helen Burnett

The Good Government Act received Royal assent June 22, bringing with it a series of changes designed to "modernize Ontario''s laws." Improved transparency in the justice system could follow as soon as this autumn, with a number of widely anticipated initiatives set to increase streamlining and accountability also on the government''s agenda.

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Under schedule A of bill 14, the proposed access to justice act, the government is looking to implement a series of changes to improve openness, which would include amending the Courts of Justice Act.

If the legislation passes, changes to the Courts of Justice Act would include reforms to courts administration and court rules. For example, approval for any changes to court rules would go to the attorney general rather than to the Cabinet. These changes have been designed to increase efficiency while maintaining public accountability, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General.

The proposed reforms also set out to clarify that the attorney general and judiciary would be jointly responsible for courts administration. The attorney general would also be able to appoint a chief administrator of the court service, who would be responsible for directing and supervising the work of the court service and its employees.

James Morton, vice president of the Ontario Bar Association, says, "In general, we are very supportive of a more efficient and streamlined rule-making process, a transparent process which can allow for better and greater public accountability. These particular amendments seem to do that."

Morton adds that as the changes going through are still up to the legislative agenda, he suspects that nothing will happen until the fall. The Access to Justice Act was first introduced in October 2005.

Randall Bocock, second vice chairman of the County and District Law Presidents' Association, says the association has been in favour of these types of enhancements for some time.

"We have, in CDLPA, consistently lobbied through all of our efforts, both in terms of all of paralegal regulation, the amendments to the legal aid system, and also to court services and courts management, to ensure that the process is streamlined, that public access is enhanced, and that the system generally functions best and

efficiently. This is generally consistent with those three lobbying efforts that we have made over the last years.

"Just because you can make improvements doesn't mean that what you've got is bad at the moment. We have had a pretty good process to this point. The changes which they are proposing improve that process," says Morton.

Other changes to the Courts of Justice Act will include the publication of information, specifically the creation of an annual report on the courts.

"The idea of publishing an annual report, so that the public can see what is going on, is a good one. Often, the problems that the public has with the justice system are perception rather than reality. Things work pretty well most of the time. The dramatically bad cases, the cases that go off the rails, get the press. An annual report may be a bit of a palliative to that," Morton says.

"Of course, an annual report done properly will point out if things really are going off the rails. There is no question that there are some delays in the system which have to be addressed and a report that shows the good and the bad can only be good in general," adds Morton.

Bocock adds that all sections of bill 14 require a report back to either the attorney general or the justice committee of the legislative assembly.

"CDLPA is of the view that it is always important to have evaluative mechanisms in place to provide input back to the legislative body on how well those amendments are working in terms of accomplishing their original goals," he says.

"I think it is a bona fide attempt to streamline the system and to make it more responsive to immediate required changes."

Through other sections of the access to justice act, the government is proposing amendments to the way in which justices of the peace are appointed, as well as a new act, the legislation act, which would serve as a single source for rules about Ontario's laws.

Also included in Bill 14 are amendments to the Provincial Offences Act, which will allow witnesses to be heard through electronic means, such as video conferencing.

"Bringing justice into the 21st century, having witness statements taken electronically, and providing testimony electronically is almost certainly a good thing, provided the appropriate safeguards are there. It does seem that those safeguards are being put into place," says Morton.

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