As the provincial government announced its Better Justice Together effort last week aimed at improving the court system and addressing access to justice, new statistics from the six-year-old Justice on Target project show it continues to fall short of its goals of making the courts more efficient.
Recent statistics published by the Ministry of the Attorney General show either a plateau or a slight decrease in court efficiency in 2013 versus 2012.
The courts met the goal of completing complex criminal matters within 10 appearances 66.5 per cent of the time in 2013, a slight decrease from 67 per cent in 2012. The benchmark set by the government was also to complete those matters within 240 days, an aim the courts met 66.2 per cent of the time last year. In 2012, they met that target 67.7 per cent of the time. On both of those measures, the numbers were down from when the government relaunched Justice on Target in 2012 after it failed to meet the more ambitious targets it set when it originally announced the program in 2008.
The project’s original goal was to reduce the number of appearances and days to disposition in Ontario criminal cases by 30 per cent by 2012 as compared to 2007. The government abandoned that approach in favour of the new benchmarks after falling far short of that initial goal. At the time of the relaunch, the statistics dating up to June 2012 showed the average number of appearances had declined to 8.5 from 9.3 in 2007. As for days to disposition, the average in June 2012 was 192, a decrease of about six per cent from the 2007 figure of 205 days. The idea of the new benchmarks was to seek continuous improvement against them.
The Ministry of the Attorney General now says not all cases will meet the benchmarks it set when it relaunched the project in 2012.
“The benchmark approach recognizes that every case is unique and not all cases will meet the benchmarks 100 per cent of the time,” said ministry spokesman Brendan Crawley.
“While provincially, the percentage of cases meeting the provincial benchmarks has somewhat plateaued, there has been some success in achieving the strategy’s ultimate goal of a more efficient and effective criminal justice system,” he added.
More than half of the sites where the Justice on Target program has been operating have improved the percentage of less complex cases completed within five appearances, according to Crawley.
“Additionally, more than half of all sites have improved the percentage of more complex cases completed within 240 days,” he said.
Criminal lawyer J.S. Vijaya tells Law Times that despite the underwhelming numbers, he sees some signs of the Justice on Target project in the courtroom.
“The trial dates are being set much more quickly than they have been in the past,” he says. And when it comes to court appearances where nothing used to happen, judges are putting pressure on both the Crown and the defence counsel to hurry up with disclosure and pleas, according to Vijaya.
“The judge asks the Crown, ‘What’s going on?’ So it’s on track, a lot faster,” he says. “Where things used to drag sometimes for months, it’s no longer the case because there’s an actual judge asking the tough questions of both defence counsel and also the Crown. If the defence is deliberately dragging their feet, the judge would simply say, ‘Hey, you know what? You will get your video disclosure from the store but you can set it down for trial right now and in the meanwhile, set an interim date to make sure that you have the video by the trial date.’”
At that interim date, usually a month before the scheduled trial, the parties would confirm whether the accused has received disclosure and still wants a trial or prefers to enter a guilty plea.
Criminal lawyer Tanya Thompson says she, too, is seeing improvement on the timelines for disclosure. “I’m receiving disclosure on the first court appearance more often,” says Thompson, a partner at Rusonik O’Connor Robbins Ross Gorham & Angelini LLP. The progress is a result of more than just judicial pressure, she adds. “I think there is real goodwill in the Ministry of the Attorney General in the Crown offices to improve that and I do see an improvement.”
While this is all great news, Vijaya is skeptical of the other side of the Justice on Target program, which he says is seeing more people entering guilty pleas too early in the criminal justice process. “People are pleading guilty because they are speaking to duty counsel and they’re sort of funnelling them that way,” says Vijaya. Overburdened duty counsel often do a quick assessment of the case and ask the accused if they’d like to plead guilty and accept a more favourable offer from the Crown, he notes.
“The criminal justice system is not necessarily based on your moral guilt; it’s a legal guilt or innocence. And a lot of people can’t differentiate between that. If you’re confessing to me that you shoplifted a candy bar, for a criminal lawyer the question is can the state prove it,” he says.
“When duty counsel appears, the Crown would say, ‘Look, if he pleads guilty today, we’d give him some sort of discount,’” he adds.
“That’s not supposed to be the theoretical goal of the justice system,” he says.
The gains of the Justice on Target program are less visible on the bail side of things, according to Thompson. “I think there is still room to recognize a lot more time savings at the bail stage,” she says, noting she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the future of Justice on Target.
The latest figures from the Justice on Target program come as the province launched its Better Justice Together effort aimed at making “the justice system simpler, faster, and less expensive for all Ontarians.”
In a speech last week, Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur said the new effort would focus on modernization and technology, diverting family matters out of court, streamlining processes, and supporting people with mental-health issues in the justice system. The focus, she said, would be on collaboration, including through an upcoming minister’s roundtable.
For more, see "Justice on Target missing its mark: report" and "Justice on Target relaunched."