Chief Justice Heather Smith of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice publicly called for more facilities for the courts and to implement a new system for appointing judges at the Opening of the Courts ceremony last week.
Smith, one of several top judges to appear at the ceremony, also alluded to “tensions between the judicial, executive and legislative branches of the government.”
She did not specify to what she was referring, but Smith’s comments came during a week when Ontario Premier Doug Ford had spoken publicly about his concerns with judicial overstep.
“I wish to underscore the vital importance of keeping the public’s confidence in our justice system at the forefront of public policy decision-making,” Smith said. “It is fundamental to the rule of law. If lost it would be very difficult to regain.”
Attorney General Caroline Mulroney emphasized the province’s shared goals with the judiciary in her followup remarks at the Opening of the Courts in Toronto.
“Everyone in this room serves the people of our province each and every day,” Mulroney told the judges in the courtroom. “We value and respect the work you do and the role you play in the administration of justice in Ontario. While we won’t always line up on a particular issue, these differences do not stand in the way of our shared commitment to the common good. It is, indeed, through the most diligent execution of our unique mandates that we most effectively serve the people.”
Smith also noted several issues that have yet to be solved in the justice system: the completion of the new wing in the Brampton courthouse, the lack of a Unified Family Court site in the Osgoode precinct and the consolidation of almost all the criminal matters in Toronto to a single area in the downtown core, amid the arrival of the planned courthouse on Armoury Street.
“Madam Attorney, if Ontario is going to complete provincewide expansion of [Unified Family Courts] to all sites by 2025, we must have a commitment from the Ontario government that sufficient facilities will exist to properly support it,” Smith said.
Smith lauded the Unified Family Court expansion planned in Ontario, thanking both the justice minister and attorney general for their help. But she also noted the heavy workload of Ontario’s judges. There are 21 judges in the Court of Appeal with one vacancy, 202 judges in the Superior Court of Justice, which has 16 vacancies, and 33 judges in Family Court, which has one vacancy as of Sept. 1, according to the website of the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs Canada.
“We can only do so much when 21 judicial vacancies, approaching nearly 10 per cent of our full-time judicial complement, are left vacant for months on end,” Smith said. “I have written to the minister of justice about this issue, urging that a new system be established for filling judicial vacancies immediately and seamlessly as they arise. I ask that you please, again, pass on this message.”
Sean Gaudet, a senior counsel at Justice Canada, said the justice ministry recognized the pressing need to address court delays and that the ministry considers it a high priority to fill the vacancies with meritorious candidates as quickly as possible.
Other issues addressed at the ceremony included the turnover in the judicial system and the importance of modernizing the courts and improving access to justice.
“Since I spoke to you last year, our court has seen tremendous turnover in our judicial officers — with 27 new judges and 17 new justices of the peace joining our bench,” said Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve of the Ontario Court of Justice. “This influx of new appointments has meant an increased workload for our administrative judges and justices of the peace.”
Maisonneuve said she looks forward to working with Mulroney to further “common goals of serving the public through a fair and impartial justice system that is accessible to all.”
Law Society of Ontario Treasurer Malcolm Mercer echoed calls to fill judicial vacancies and for reforms that support a “competent, independent” court system as a “foundation of our free and democratic society.”
Ontario Chief Justice George Strathy used the Opening of the Courts ceremony to remark on the open and transparent nature of the judiciary.
“Judges explain their decisions with reasons, and their reasons and decisions are open to public examination and criticism,” Strathy said. “Our decisions are open to appeal. . . . [D]ebate is the sign of a healthy democracy.”