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Review of civil justice system launched

|Written By Helen Burnett

Improvements to the civil justice system in the province look to be on the horizon, as the government has announced that it will be considering recommendations on reform from a former associate chief justice of Ontario.

Michael Barrack says the review should be for focused and manageable change, not a complete re-writing of the civil justice rules.
The province's most recent move towards reform in the civil justice system involves Coulter Osborne, who was appointed to the position of associate chief justice of Ontario in 1999. Osborne has been asked by the government to suggest options for reform to make the system more affordable and accessible. He has also been the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario since 2001.

"We are committed to enhancing access to justice for Ontarians," said Attorney General Michael Bryant in a statement. "That's why we have asked Mr. Osborne, who has over 45 years of legal experience, to examine the civil justice system to look for ways we can improve."

The Ministry of the Attorney General has suggested Osborne examine reforms in areas such as unrepresented litigants as well as streamlining litigation processes to decrease delays and costs.

"I think it demonstrates a real commitment by the attorney general to change process in a focused and practical way as well," says Michael Barrack of McCarthy Tétrault LLP, the new president of the Advocates' Society. "We are very pleased with the choice of Coulter Osborne by the attorney general; we think it's an excellent choice," he says.

Earlier this year, the Advocates' Society published a report from its policy forum and for the National Civil Justice Reform conference, outlining its position on streamlining the civil justice system as well as the areas that it thinks need to be looked at in terms of reform.

Major themes listed in the report include access to justice, the principle of proportionality, and fostering cultural change on the bench and the bar. This includes addressing the gap between what lawyers think clients want and what clients are saying, such as wanting their lawyers to develop a strategic litigation plan and align their fees with the importance of the case.

The report also mentions a central theme that civil justice reforms do not need to be uniform across the province. For example, while Toronto has delay and cost challenges, areas such as Ottawa have problems related to strains on limited judicial resources from rapidly growing populations.

The Advocates' Society notes that "proposed changes to the Rules of Civil Procedure should be targeted at Toronto or other centres on a pilot project basis and should not be rolled out in jurisdictions where practice or procedure changes are unnecessary or unsuitable."

Barrack says, "Dealing with the proliferation of expert evidence, controlling the discovery process, summary disposition of cases and managing the trial process — all of these areas are areas that we think that Mr. Osborne should have a look at."

The society's forum on civil justice earlier this year was designed to "enhance access to justice by engaging the bench and the bar in the search for creative ways to promote more efficient, less expensive dispute resolution in our courts.

Barrack describes the government's latest move as in line with the Advocates' Society's position on civil justice reform."We see it as a real positive step forward in terms of trying to aid in bringing about some of the changes that the policy forum suggested merited consideration," he says.

Other legal groups are also welcoming the review

"This is one of many ways the government and the legal community can work together to make changes that will benefit all Ontarians," says Orm Murphy, chairman of the County and District Law Presidents' Association. "This reform project will support the steady progress we've been making in this important area of the justice system," said Heather McGee, president of the Ontario Bar Association.

"There is always more to be done and we look forward to considering Mr. Osborne's recommendations." According to a spokesperson for the attorney general, Osborne has been asked to deliver recommendations for action over the next 12 months that can be easily implemented and will produce tangible results.

The process is expected to include an analysis of civil justice reform initiatives that have been introduced in other jurisdictions, according to the ministry. Osborne will be developing a process for completing the project in consultation with the attorney general's office. He will also consult with judicial partners and stakeholders and review available data from Ontario. Counsel from the ministry will be providing research support to the former associate chief justice

"The thing the Advocates' Society feels is important in the process is that this be focused and manageable change, not a complete re-writing of the entire set of rules for resolving civil disputes but looking at some of the areas where change is possible and would make a real difference," says Barrack.

In addition to the civil justice reform recommendations, the province says it will be looking to improve accessibility to the justice system through bill 14, the proposed access to justice act, and that it is increasing funding to Legal Aid Ontario by $13 million over the next year.

The government has also announced that it is planning to expand the capacity of the civil court system. In May, Bryant announced that some of the civil court facilities at 361 University Ave. in Toronto will be relocated to a bigger and more modern space down the street at 330 University Ave.

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