The Ontario Superior Court has reached a “critical point,” as the judiciary is facing a high number of vacancies and retirements as well as an increasing workload, according to the court’s Chief Justice Heather Smith.
Speaking at the Opening of the Courts on Jan. 10, Smith noted that Ontario’s population has increased by 3.8 million in the last 16 years, which has significantly increased the judicial workload.
“It’s very hard to think in terms of that kind of impact of an exploding population on a courts system. But that population increase alone represents a greater group of people than the entire population of Alberta currently,” she said.
Similar to the situation at the start of 2006, judicial vacancies continue to be an ongoing concern, although Smith noted that from September to December 2006, 15 judges were appointed to the Ontario Superior Court.
“At the Opening of the Courts last year, the judicial vacancy rate in the courts was five. Even though these 15 judges have been appointed since September 2006, this cannot keep pace with our ever increasing number of vacancies because now, in fact, as of the same date a year later, there are 11 vacancies in the court,” she said.
Smith added that the regional senior justice’s position in the central-east region of the province also remains open, and 12 judges are expected to elect to be supernumerary judges this year. An additional 10 supernumerary judges will also reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2007. This amounts to 24 judicial appointments that need to be made to achieve a full complement, according to Smith.
“Accordingly, I propose to urge the minister of justice, on an urgent basis, to get the Superior Court of Justice up to full complement,” she said.
“At the CBA meeting [in August 2006], the former federal minister of justice also indicated that he wasn’t convinced that simply creating new judicial positions would address the increasing pressure on a court’s longer and more complex trials. However, he did indicate an openness and a willingness to consider additional positions if there was clear and objective evidence that they were needed.
“In point of fact, such a proposal had gone forward. In 2004, the Superior Court and the attorney general of Ontario forwarded to the federal government a joint proposal to increase by 12 our family courts complement. These judicial resources are still desperately needed if children in need and families in crisis are to be provided with timely access to justice in the Superior Court,” noted Smith.
She added that before the Superior Court considered increasing its judicial complement, it developed “best practices” with the support of the bar “to ensure that we were maximizing, to the most efficient level possible, our existing judicial resources.”
Smith said: “I think in terms of in-house, we have done everything we can to bring efficiency to the judicial time-management system to ensure that there’s timely, early intervention where we can provide it. But the timeliness is dependent on having a sufficient complement to be able to put judges into a role where they can do the work in a proper manner.”
Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry noted that the Court of Appeal remains concerned with the number of unrepresented litigants in criminal appeals.
He also added that the number of unrepresented litigants before the courts remains on the rise, particularly in the family courts.
“Certainly in the reviews of the civil justice system in Canada, which are going on both nationally and in Ontario, the needs of self-represented litigants are certainly being given a high priority and various techniques and strategies are being developed in order to assist unrepresented litigants find their way though the court process.
“Probably the most important challenge facing the administration of justice in Ontario is, firstly, the access to the civil justice system by citizens of Ontario on a timely and affordable fashion,” he noted.
Chief Justice Brian Lennox of the Ontario Court of Justice also commented that it would be “of benefit to begin now a fundamental review of family justice within the province,” noting that the time frames involved in Family Court expansion have been too long, with the latest expansion of the Unified Family Court project taking place over seven years ago.
“I firmly believe that we need with some urgency to develop a clear vision and policy framework and a firm timetable for the purpose of making consistent and coherent decisions on the future of family courts and Family Court services in Ontario,” he noted.
Also speaking at the Opening of the Courts, Attorney General Michael Bryant announced a pilot project to put cameras in the courtrooms of the Ontario Court of Appeal will be implemented this year.
The project is the result of a recommendation from the Ontario Panel on Justice and the Media last year.
“Through this initiative, we will be bringing the public directly into our courtrooms via cameras in the court,” said Bryant. “In doing so, we will be opening a new window to provide Ontarians with an unprecedented view of our justice system.”
Ontario Bar Association president James Morton supports the pilot, saying the group hopes the project will help shed light on the need for more resources in the justice system.
“The Ontario Bar Association supports efforts to promote openness in our courtrooms by installing cameras in Ontario’s Court of Appeal, as it will help connect the public with our justice system. For some time now the public has had the chance to get an inside look at the proceedings before the Supreme Court of Canada through CPAC, so this seems to be a logical extension,” said Morton.
He added he’s sure the government will take into account privacy issues that may arise.
This year’s ceremonies marked the last time that McMurtry would be presiding at the Opening of the Courts as chief justice of Ontario, as he is retiring in May. Lennox is also set to complete his eight-year term in May.