The Ministry of the Attorney General is doing unsatisfactory work, which is reflected in the “significant negative impact” of the Justice on Target program, according to New Democratic Party MPP and MAG critic Jagmeet Singh.
Singh, the MPP for Bramalea-Gore-Malton, says the ministry’s Justice on Target initiative is putting Ontarians in a tough spot.
“People are pleading guilty instead of exercising their fundamental right to go to trial,” says Singh. “There is focus on quicker resolutions and to wrap up the case.”
Justice on Target is an initiative put forth to address long wait times and effectively reduce criminal court delays. Launched in 2008, JOT claims to have eliminated more than 500,000 criminal court appearances since its inception. However, Singh says the program is putting pressure on clients, especially those with low income.
“Charges that are less serious don’t qualify for legal aid coverage and this coupled with JOT pushing for quick resolutions is making clients plead guilty because they can’t afford a trial.”
Singh has been vocal in the past about the need for transparency in police forces and says officers need to be trained to de-escalate a potentially violent situation. He says despite heavy criticisms from ombudsman André Marin, almost nothing has changed.
“It’s shameful and disturbing that the ministry is being criticized by the ombudsman,” says Singh. “In his report, the ombudsman says MAG is creating barriers to stop the [Special Investigations Unit] from doing their review.”
The SIU of Ontario is an independent agency that investigates any instances between the police and members of the public that result in alleged sexual assault, serious injury, or death.
Singh says the police need to be held to a higher standard due to their increased responsibility and the ministry needs to take measures for them to be held more accountable. One recommendation in that direction is instituting the use of lapel cameras for on-duty police officers. Though it does raise privacy concerns, the cameras are being implemented on a trial basis and Singh says there is “ample evidence that justifies” their use.
Another long-standing issue before the justice system is the need for better technology in courtrooms to bolster efficiency. Singh, an experienced criminal lawyer, says Ontario is “lagging behind” other regions in terms of making courtrooms digitalized.
“We still rely a lot on paper. The justice system will benefit from a robust use of available technology,” says Singh.
Ontario recently launched an e-filing pilot project in Small Claims Court that allows members of the public to file litigation in small claims cases online and also get court-issued documents by e-mail. Singh says although this is a step in the right direction, the success of the pilot will depend on how “intensely” the ministry pursues it.
Under Madeleine Meilleur, who was appointed attorney general in March, the courts have seen progress in implementing technology such as the availability of daily court information online. However, Singh feels MAG has not had an “appropriate response” to criticisms and suggestions.
“There has been no change to litigation. No change at all,” he says. “The ministry has not had a satisfactory response to any of the concerns raised with respect to the justice system.”
Singh is a long-time activist for social justice and cites his community involvement and criminal defence work as a major factor in him joining politics. He plans to continue advocating for transparency in courtrooms as well as accommodations for people of all different religions and faiths in the justice system.
This article is part one of a series speaking with opposition justice critics in Ontario.