Civil litigation delays Smith’s ‘top priority’ for coming year

As the annual opening of the courts ceremony marked the beginning of a new year for Ontario’s justice system, Superior Court Chief Justice Heather Smith said curbing long wait times for civil motions and trials is her “top priority.”

Calling timely hearings “an essential deliverable” for access to justice, Smith assured members of the bar, the judiciary, and several dignitaries that her office is working to fix a time lag lawyers and judges have called “shameful.”

“This issue is already being addressed as our top priority for 2013-14 by me, by the associate chief justice, by the regional senior judges of the GTA regions most directly affected by this trend,” said Smith.

Smith’s comments come as the Ontario Bar Association also unanimously passed a motion during its recent fall council meeting to take “immediate steps” to address the delays.

“Whereas the civil litigation section executive finds that urgent corrective action is needed to address significant delays in obtaining motion dates and long trial dates, now be it resolved that the OBA take immediate steps to address these delays with necessary stakeholders,” reads the motion brought forward by Guillermo Schible.

According to the OBA’s post-meeting notice, obtaining motion dates and long trials was the main focus of the gathering and many members of council stood up to speak about their own experiences with delays.

Smith said the courts would need the bar’s help in solving the issue.

“Certainly, the bar has a very important role to play in supporting the court’s effort to control overburdened civil motions and trials in the GTA,” she said.

“The bar’s input and insight into these challenges will be most welcome and most helpful and its collaboration will be key in resolving this issue.”

One of the ways members of the bar can be useful is by only bringing to court motions and trials that are “truly ready” for a hearing, said Smith.

“When counsel seek trials and motions that aren’t truly ready for hearing, earlier dates become unavailable for matters that are ready to proceed,” she added.
On the court’s side, Smith said it’s engaging in “an extensive internal review” of its judicial scheduling and assignment practices. Superior Court Justice Geoffrey Morawetz will conduct the review, she said.

“I could not be more delighted or more confident that we have the right person for the job,” added Smith, who also noted Morawetz’ review, which will extend to the Greater Toronto Area, would seek to identify best practices.

“We are poised to take further steps to ensure that only motions and trials that are truly ready to proceed are placed on the appropriate motions and trials in civil proceedings and to ensure that the dates delivered are much more timely. As a court, with Justice Morawetz leading this initiative, we will not rest until we achieve reasonable time periods to the hearing of all civil long motions and long trials in the GTA.”

In Toronto, the court has engaged its civil bench and bar committee in the matter, Smith said. The court has also already met with leaders of the bar, including the treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, executive members of the Toronto Lawyers Association, the Ontario Bar Association, and, most recently, The Advocates’ Society to come up with a collaborative solution.

“This [is a] goal we see as an essential deliverable for a real access to justice,” said Smith.

When it comes to timely justice, Ontario can look to the Small Claims Court, she noted.

“I am very happy to report that it remains a model of timely, effective, and affordable justice in Ontario handling approximately 45 per cent of all civil proceedings filed in this province,” said Smith, who lauded speedy justice in Ontario’s criminal proceedings as well.

Chief Justice of Ontario Warren Winkler and Ontario Court Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo also spoke at Tuesday’s event. Bonkalo highlighted the new protocols for the use of electronic devices in courts that allow recording unless the judicial officer has restricted it.

“These initiatives demonstrate the commitment of the Court of Justice to the principle of open court,” she said, adding the court is also committed to “demystifying” the court process to the public.

Bonkalo also talked about the “striking” number of unrepresented litigants in family courts who continue to pose challenges for the justice system. Another highlight from the Ontario Court of Justice in the past year was a meeting with stakeholders on how to improve fly-in justice operations to aboriginal communities in the province’s far north, she added.

“I am pleased to report that the work is already underway to address the operational enhancements identified in the report.”

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