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Editorial - The time has come for civil justice reform

The Ontario government has made it official that it will be looking into ways to reform the civil justice system in this province. And while not broken, the system is not serving Ontarians as it should. Many, particularly people with low and moderate incomes, have given up on the courts as a way to help them solve disputes. This even though a 2005 Department of Justice study by Ab Currie shows that almost half of Canadians surveyed over three years experienced "justiciable" problems.

"Many of the problems experienced by respondents were the types that could threaten the security and well being of individuals and their families," notes Currie's study. Most cases, it says, are "little injustices" that wouldn't necessarily be resolved by the courts but would have a better chance of easy resolution if those involved were better informed about their legal rights and obligations.There are, of course, large and small civil litigation cases involving mostly corporate litigants. There are different problems on both ends of the scale, many of which have been illuminated in a number of studies and research on civil justice systems across Canada and throughout the world, including a major review from the Canadian Bar Association in 1996.

There's no doubt that changes need to be made within the system. The Advocates' Society's civil justice reform report from earlier this year has some excellent ideas culled from other jurisdictions:

-   increasing Small Claims Court limits to $25,000 from the current $10,000

-    introducing self-help information centres such as the one at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver that lets users learn about the court system and court procedures, get legal information, locate and fill out court forms, find out about free legal advice, and find alternatives to court; and

-    increasing the jurisdiction for cases under the simplified rules procedure to $100,000 from the current $50,000.

At the civil justice reform conference in Montreal a couple of months ago, Australian Justice Geoffrey L. Davies noted that encouraging parties to resolve cases earlier really speeds up the process. Don't focus on a trial, focus on resolution, he said, and part of that, in his state, is a statutory requirement for early mutual disclosure in civil cases.In Quebec, major changes to the civil justice system were put into place in 2002. One of those is to encourage more oral presentation, with strict guidelines, instead of relying on ever-burgeoning written submissions.These are just a few items former associate chief justice Coulter Osborne can look at in his recommendations to the Ontario government for improvements to the civil justice system here. Many don't require money being spent; it's often a case of changing the culture of both the bar and bench to focus on swift resolution.

 Such a cultural shift may not be easy but it is necessary and will make the system better for everyone, particularly those who should be served by it, the public.

— Gail J. Cohen 

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