Administration of justice hurt by delays?

A recently resigned assessments officer says the administration of justice is being brought “into disrepute” by delays in Toronto, where wait times for preliminary appointments in assessments under the Solicitors Act have ballooned to more than 12 months from three months in less than a year. 

“It’s not proper or fair to have someone waiting a year just for a preliminary appointment. It’s wrong,” says George Argyropoulos, a former assessment officer who spent almost eight years in the job before quitting in February.

“Matters are supposed to be dealt with in the most cost-effective manner according to the Rules of Civil Procedure, but that’s not happening in Toronto. What is being done is bringing the administration of justice into disrepute,” he adds.

Law Times recently reported on an Ontario Superior Court decision in which the judge branded wait times for assessment hearings in the province “unacceptably long,” but Argyropoulos says lawyers and clients in Toronto are suffering more than most due to the “clearly ridiculous” situation there.

Preliminary appointments mark the first contact between the parties to an assessment and an official with the office that will ultimately settle the dispute. According to Argyropoulos, assessment officers often attempt to resolve the matter through mediation at the appointment, or failing that, schedule dates for a full hearing even further down the road; at least two years later currently. 

Before his resignation, Argyropoulos took a leave of absence starting in July last year. On his final full day of work last summer, he says he was able to book preliminary appointments for parties with orders for assessments more than three months after that date. 

Now, he and lawyers in the Toronto area report the wait for a preliminary appointment has jumped to at least 12 months. Assuming current timelines hold strong, that means parties to assessments ordered today can look forward to a final adjudication some time in mid-2019.  

“The whole state of affairs in Toronto is very sad. They definitely need a solution immediately, because, otherwise, it’s just going to get worse,” Argyropoulos says. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Ministry of the Attorney General, but I’m very concerned and unhappy that the public is not being served in the manner they are entitled to be. For me, it goes back to the basic concept that justice delayed is justice denied.”

In a statement, spokesman Brendan Crawley said the Ministry of the Attorney General was aware of the problems in Toronto, and is currently exploring options to “ensure matters are heard in an efficient manner and the administration of justice is maintained.”

“Efforts include obtaining assistance from assessment officers in other regions to hear matters until December 2016 and recruiting for assessment officers in the near future,” Crawley wrote.

When Argyropoulos was hired in June 2008, he was one of six full-time officers in Toronto who conducted assessments. Three further part-time employees were also brought in as needed to deal with matters on a per diem basis. Following his departure, just two full-time officers remain in Toronto, a reduction Robert Schipper sees as key to the soaring wait times for preliminary appointments.  

“The volume of cases coming into the assessment office certainly hasn’t diminished since the days, once upon a time, when we had nine assessment officers in Toronto,” says Schipper, a Toronto litigator who has built a reputation for himself as an expert in assessments, representing parties on both sides of disputes.

“The impact on both lawyers and clients has been significant. Everyone wants to have their day in court, so it’s very frustrating for all involved,” he adds.

In addition, Schipper says assessment officers have had to take over responsibility for monitoring court-recording equipment from court reporters, and deal with matters of ever-increasing complexity, with amounts in dispute routinely hitting sums in the six-figure range and above.

“It’s a very hard job they do, and I have a great deal of sympathy for them,” he says.

Neither lawyers nor clients face restrictions on where they bring applications for assessments, and Schipper says some have taken advantage of the fact to avoid the quickly deteriorating situation in Toronto by filing in surrounding municipalities such as Newmarket, Brampton, or Milton. However, he says, any gains are probably temporary.

“I’ve heard Brampton is already getting problems, and as more people leave Toronto, it’s only going to get worse outside. There are not that many officers,” Schipper says.

Assessment work, mostly on behalf of lawyers and law firms, takes up a significant chunk of the practice of Edwin Upenieks,  president of the Ontario Bar Association. He says delays in the process need to be addressed.

“Lawyers need to be paid. They work hard and it’s not acceptable to wait for years for a hearing on a fee issue,” Upenieks says. “My clients are discouraged and disappointed, especially because it was a more efficient process in the past.

“We recognize the province’s fiscal realities and the need to optimize resources, but improvements have been made in other areas, and I think a broad range of our members are interested in working with the government to resolve this issue before it gets worse.”

Argyropoulos says the solution to the delays is “not just about getting more people.”

“You’ve got to hire competent people who are extremely passionate about the job. And they have to be hired by people who understand the job and its responsibilities,” he says. “I think a lot of qualified people would say they don’t want the job because it doesn’t pay enough.”

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