Focus: Toronto facilities for civil trials a ‘disgusting hole’

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s facilities for civil trials at 393 University Ave. in Toronto are a “disgusting hole,” says a veteran civil litigator.

“The eighth is the main floor and it’s an absolute shit hole,” says Robert Harrison, a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP’s Toronto office.

“The rooms are airless deathtraps, there’s no security for judges who have to get up to work on a public elevator, and the public have to find their way around the squalor that amounts to court facilities, and all this in one of the world’s major centres.”

That isn’t likely to change any time soon.

“The [former] attorney general looked at me like I was stoned when I asked about it,” says Harrison.

Larry Lowenstein of Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP in Toronto says inadequate court facilities shouldn’t really come as a shock to anyone.

“It’s true that our judges are not as secure as we might like,” he says.

“But does it really surprise that the physical facilities need a refresh when the overall court system is so starved of resources, lacks efficient technology, and doesn’t have enough support staff?”

But Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General, said in an e-mail the province has invested more than $3.6 million at 393 University Ave., “including projects to improve accessibility, security, and program and public counter space.”

But Harrison says the figures amount to blowing smoke.

“Spending $500,000 annually on 393 has done nothing, for example, to improve the extraordinarily poor air quality in the courtrooms,” he says.

“Judges, lawyers and, I have no doubt, clients and witnesses, detest the place.”

The July 2014 provincial budget did provide for a new courthouse in downtown Toronto, but that project would consolidate many of the city’s Ontario Court of Justice criminal facilities.

“Meanwhile, the civil courts and a lot of very devoted judges will have to continue putting up indefinitely with these absolutely disgraceful accommodations,” says Harrison.

Harrison’s complaints deal with the civil litigation mainstream. Commercial list cases proceed at the old Federal Court building at 330 University Ave.

The main Superior Court facilities at 361 University Ave. used to accommodate many more civil trials, but the Supreme Court of Canada timelines mandated for criminal cases have given them priority.

“That happens for the same reason that a disproportionate number of Superior Court judges must be assigned to criminal as opposed to civil matters,” says Harrison.

“Combine that with the fact that we are many judges short of a suitable allotment overall and you get overworked judges, a terrible civil backlog, and all that with the added sweetener of working at 393 University.”

When the government demolished the Superior Court premises at 145 Queen St. W. in Toronto, the land gave way to the new opera house rather than the new courthouse many were expecting.

“So they put us at 393 in an office building that was never designed to be a courthouse,” says Harrison.

“But the province never gave a rat’s ass about the civil courts and it’s never been on their radar, so accommodation that was always supposed to be temporary became permanent,” he says.

Crawley counters that the government has invested more than $1.6 billion in capital projects “to strengthen the justice system,” including “significantly” renovating or expanding 27 courthouses across the province.

“New courthouses have been completed in Belleville (Quinte), St. Thomas, Thunder Bay, Kitchener (Waterloo), Oshawa (Durham), and Sioux Lookout,” he said.

“We are continually investing in upgrades and renewals to existing facilities and have undertaken significant infrastructure projects in Barrie, Newmarket, Ottawa, Parry Sound, Pembroke, Toronto (47 Sheppard Ave.), and Richmond Hill.”

Again, however, the project at 47 Sheppard Ave. E., although in Toronto, houses family courts for the Ontario Court of Justice and the Small Claims Court.

“No one in government gives a fig about a brand new courthouse for the Superior Court in Toronto, but they always like to see one in places like Barrie,” says one senior counsel who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s all about politics.”

Although Crawley noted the ministry “continues to review facilities requirements and respond appropriately,” Harrison takes no comfort in the government’s assurances.

“The ministry’s comments suggest that 393 University will be with us indefinitely, and that is appalling,” he says.

It’s not clear, however, how widespread Harrison’s sentiments are. Some litigators believe, for example, that physical facilities shouldn’t be the government’s priority.

“The facilities are not the most beautiful but they function, and I don’t think we should be complaining about their quality,” says Dimitri Lascaris, a class actions lawyer at Siskinds LLP in London, Ont.

“There’s a much greater need for judges, clerks, and other resources than for spending millions on a courthouse in Toronto,” he adds.

Cynics may point out that Lascaris is at a London-based law firm.

But Siskinds is also one of the most prominent class action firms in the country and its lawyers spend a great deal of time in Toronto.

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