Court reform goal for new OBA president

For David Sterns, pushing court reform will be a big part of his new role as president of the Ontario Bar Association.

Sterns started serving as the OBA’s new president in mid-August and has already started to focus on what he calls a renewed commitment to advocacy.
During his term leading the organization, he says he hopes to make a noticeable difference in how the OBA advocates for the profession.

“I hope that I’ll have moved the needle on court reform,” he told Law Times.

“I think there is a willingness among the judiciary and hopefully the government as well to push this forward.”

Digitizing the courts is at the top of his agenda.

The provincial government recently expanded a pilot project that digitized e-filing in the Small Claims Court, but it fell short of introducing such a system for other courts.

Sterns says that introducing e-filing for all courts is an easily attainable goal.

“This is not the equivalent of putting a man on the moon,” he says. “This is well within the technology capabilities of today.”

Observers say the provincial government has been careful to introduce digitized systems to the courts and has done so on a piecemeal basis.

That incrementalism stems from past experiences trying to roll out more comprehensive systems that have been abandoned such as the Court Information Management System or the Integrated Justice Project, legal observers say.

The OBA president says he knows such systems can work well as he was part of a paperless trial last year in front of Justice Arthur Gans that lasted two weeks.

Sterns says introducing e-filing — or even completely paperless courts — would not be a complicated task nor would it take much money. It just has not been a priority for the government, he says.

“It’s an embarrassment and it costs money for practicing lawyers and causes great challenges to the judiciary and, of course, all that comes back to the client who ends up paying the cost,” he says of the paper-based system.

“I want to make e-filing a priority for this government and I want to hold them to account for that.”

Sterns says the state of the court system in general has been a portfolio the government has neglected for many years.

“It’s time for them to invest in a proper functioning court infrastructure,” he says.

Sterns, who is a litigation lawyer at Sotos LLP, also called for the provincial government to hire more assessment officers to help deal with a backlog in the Toronto Superior Court’s assessment office.

Delays in the office have got so bad that it can often take up to a year just to get a preliminary hearing.

“That is bread and butter for lawyers. If you can’t get an assessment, you can’t get paid,” he says.

“And, likewise, if a client has a problem with a lawyer’s account, they shouldn’t have to wait years and years to get a hearing.”

Sterns says a large part of the problem was rooted in the fact that assessment officers have not been replaced when they retire or quit.

Another area Sterns says he would like to tackle is the amount of time the disciplinary tribunal process takes at the Law Society of Upper Canada.

He says it can sometimes take years to disbar lawyers in instances where there is credible evidence of misappropriation on their part.

“That’s bad for the public and that’s very bad for lawyers,” he says.

He commended the law society’s work, but he says the lengthy discipline process needs to change.

Sterns grew up in Kingston, Ont., the bilingual son of a French teacher, and attended McGill University before he was called to the bar in both Quebec and Ontario.

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