Attorney General Chris Bentley tells Law Times in an exclusive interview that he plans to continue his priorities for speeding up Ontario''s justice system in the year ahead, and expects to unveil new measures in due course.
While Bentley largely kept his cards close to the vest during the wide-ranging talk, he did not pour cold water on a request from Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler for a new, consolidated Toronto courthouse. By no means did the attorney general indicate such a capital project was imminent, but certainly left the door open.
"We're actively working on meeting the court needs of the Greater Toronto Area and the population," says Bentley. "As we have announcements to make, we'll be making them. I don't have any to make this morning. But I think you should know there's a lot of hard work going on to try and make sure that we can address those needs."
Winkler previously told Law Times the jumble of courthouses in the province's largest city creates havoc for those unfamiliar with the justice system.
"The number one need in Toronto is for courtroom facilities," said Winkler. "I think there needs to be a court facility in Toronto with up-to-date, current facilities with an emphasis on criminal and family law. One big court."
Meanwhile, Bentley says his Justice on Target strategy, which was unveiled last year and calls for a 30-per-cent reduction in the number of days and court appearances in criminal trials within four years, will continue to be a top priority for the ministry. He expects recommendations from three test sites - Newmarket, North York, and London - by spring.
While many within the legal community are calling for a new infusion of money and resources to the system, Bentley says the ministry is focusing now on making things run more efficiently.
He cites ministry statistics showing that between 1992 and 2007 the length of the average criminal case in the province doubled. He says the 30-per-cent reduction would mean 500,000 fewer court visits, making justice participants like judges, Crowns, police, and court staff available for more pressing matters.
"So instead of judges and justices and Crowns and police and defence counsel spending time adjourning cases, which we do a lot of and appear to do it very well, we spend time getting on with these issues," says Bentley.
While the attorney general says he will continue his request for federal government action on the unification of family courts, he suggests progress on that issue seems unlikely.
"The federal government is the one that really holds the key to that," says Bentley. "It's been five years and we really haven't gotten them to move much over five years."
He plans to focus his attention instead on making the system more user friendly.
"For me it really begins with the people who use the courts. It begins with the Ontarian who through circumstances, often very sad circumstances, needs to use the family court," says Bentley.
"So my question is, when they go to court, when they go to a courthouse, are they going to find the information they need to find to take the mystery out of the law? Do they find a courthouse that they can get around in without the tour guide? Can they get to a counter that will answer their questions? Do they have a court system that they can understand? And can they get their case resolved as quickly as possible?"
He points to the Justice Ontario online tool as one way the ministry has made the system easier to navigate. That initiative, launched last summer, includes a web site (www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/justice-ont) and toll-free telephone number linking users with court information in 173 languages.
An initiative to update signage in courthouses also will aid that effort, says Bentley, adding proposed legislative changes to pension valuation also aim to speed the system.
The AG says he plans to go to the profession and public in the year ahead for advice on improving the family courts.
"When I travelled the province over the past year and spoke to people about criminal justice and civil justice, one thing they always wanted to talk about was family law.
"They wanted to talk about taking the paperwork out, reducing the time, reducing the cost. So we've started a little bit of that in our legislative initiative, now the
question particularly in family law is, how do we reduce the time, cost, and complexity with family proceedings?"
The AG offered no new stance on the criminal bar's ongoing demand for an increase to the legal aid tariff. He notes the tariff has been raised 15 per cent over the past five years. But with no increase between 1990 and 2003, many lawyers say that's not enough.
"I'm going to certainly continue the work that I'm doing constantly to find ways to strengthen legal aid," says Bentley. "It's no secret, it's been a challenge over the years for different governments to strengthen legal aid."
Bentley wouldn't specify his top priorities for the year ahead, but it's clear his portfolio will remain busy as ever in 2009.
"You know, we've worked very hard on building safer communities, and a faster, more effective, more affordable justice system, and I will continue working on that," he says.
"We're working hard on the initiatives that I've outlined, there will be lots more to say on those, and there are a number of very exciting initiatives that we're working on at the moment."