Ontario Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz on transforming the courts

He spoke to Law Times about justice system reforms and modernizing processes

Ontario Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz on transforming the courts
Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario Geoffrey Morawetz.

Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario Geoffrey Morawetz was appointed chief justice in 2019 with a vision to modernize the judicial system through two major transformations – an end to the antiquated and paper-based justice system and a complete reform of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

In 2020, Chief Justice Morawetz asked the Ministry of the Attorney General to procure a new end-to-end, off-the-shelf digital solution to modernize the court’s processes. A partnership was announced with Thomson Reuters in July 2023, supporting functions such as filing, case management, scheduling, document management, hearing management and exhibit management.

The court describes this as one of the “largest, if not the largest, digital transformation of a justice system, both in scope and size, in the world,” and says implementation across the province for the Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Justice for all its areas of responsibility will take seven years.

Law Times spoke with him about these changes and his career. Below is a summary of the conversation. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your career before you joined the bench.

After being called to the bar in 1980, I did my articling at what was then Borden and Elliot, where I stayed until 1998, and then went to Goodmans. I've always practiced insolvency, starting with a mix of corporate and personal. As I became more experienced, that changed to 100 percent corporate restructuring emphasizing Canada/US transborder work. I was appointed to the bench in 2005.

How did you find the shift from the private practice to the bench?

Not everybody's personality is suited to being a judge. You only argue one side if you have been a litigant. In every proceeding, though, the story has two, if not three or four different sides. The main thing to learn is listening. Being objective requires patience.

Tell me about the commercial list in Toronto, where you worked.

The commercial list was launched in the early 1990s. Real-time litigation often requires a real-time solution at the courts, and it was meant to provide timely access to the court for these disputes.

Last year, the court issued a revised commercial practice direction. We've embarked on a civil rules reform project, looking at what's working on the commercial list. We are examining how some disputes can be transferred to other court areas to avoid backlogs and make every appearance meaningful.

Where are things now with virtual proceedings?

The pandemic has changed the practice and the procedures of the court forever.

If you have a procedural matter, such as scheduling matters, those are easily dealt with virtually. However, I'd rather see you in a courtroom if you have a complicated matter where advocacy will make a difference.

For the issues in between, where do they fall? In April 2022, we released overarching guidelines to answer that question. When we first sent them out, we said that we would review them and consult with many external groups and our judges through the judicial working groups. We have now reissued or updated those guidelines.

The nice thing is that we didn't have to change much. Counsel and my executive legal officer did a lot of the hard work to establish how we would decide on a principled basis.

Our technology has undoubtedly been vastly improved over what it was a few years ago. For case management, 10 or 15 minutes for the judge in a case conference may resolve an issue that previously would have resulted in a lengthy motion scheduled six months later. The virtual world is here to stay, but there will be times when advocacy in the courtroom is still appreciated.

What has been your experience with using the CaseLines software in court?

It has been a game-changer. It was first demonstrated to me when I was the regional senior judge for Toronto around 2017, but we couldn't get it off the ground then. With the pandemic, we suddenly needed a document-sharing program.

Has it been seamless? No, whenever you're undertaking change, a certain percentage of the population will adapt more quickly than others. But everybody must recognize we're not going backwards. We meet quarterly with the ministry representatives and Thomson Reuters. I think everybody's quite excited about the digital transformation project. It's the largest of its kind anywhere in North America.

What is the status of delays and timelines at your court?

There is a delay, there is no question, and the court acknowledges that we have our challenges. The degree of the challenge depends on the region, the courthouse within that region and the court's responsibility, be it criminal, civil or family.

We have repeatedly heard about the Jordan deadlines and timelines, so we must pay attention to that. There are also statutory deadlines in the family area to which we must adhere. We also must consider that things slowed down during the pandemic, although they never stopped.

What do we do about it? Well, there are several ways we're trying to attack it. But there's no magic solution for any of this. On the civil side, we are revising the civil rules with full cooperation and a mandate from the Attorney General to get it done within two years.

We will look at other jurisdictions across Canada and the common law world. We have an excellent working group with top-notch lawyers and judges.

I've heard stories around the province about the timing of a civil proceeding from inception to resolution; in some cases, it's four or five years. That's too long. However, we have limited resources. There are several outstanding judicial vacancies. The ministry also has staffing and transition issues.

Our digital transformation project will assist with data collection. We are also a vast province, operating in approximately 53 different locations.

What advice would you give to lawyers in preparing for courtroom advocacy?

Prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare. Many of the cases I hear still are commercial reorganizations, and no matter how straightforward the matter is, put yourself in the position of being the judge who must make findings of fact.

How do you make my life easy? Identify very clearly who you are and what you want. In the written factum, provide the roadmap that gives a salient summary of the facts, the law to back it up and why the relief should be granted.

Also, be very focused on the key issues. Counsel should have the courage of their convictions. If they have two or three significant points, focus on those.

This is a challenge in the virtual world. Are young lawyers getting training from their mentors? Are they getting to court? Are they observing how first-class counsel prepares and delivers their submissions? I think we've probably lost that.

Are you familiar with BC’s online Civil Resolution Tribunal? Do you think this could be a model that works in your jurisdiction?

Yes, I am familiar with it. I fully expect it to be reviewed by our provincial government.

From the Ontario standpoint, we have Tribunals Ontario, which works in several areas. Our court sees the results because an appeal will come to our Divisional Court for many of those tribunals.

This is a policy issue for the provincial government to study. Still, part of my job entails managing the relationship with the Ministry of the Attorney General, and we have a very good working relationship with the deputy and the AG. They share my vision for a far more modern, efficient, effective system.

Does your court keep any official statistics on timelines for matters at your court?

We are finding that for cases coming for adjudication, either through an application or a trial, the issues are far more complex than they once were.

We keep complete statistics on how long it takes a judge to get a decision out. By statute, it's three months for a motion or six months for a trial. We watch those things closely, as well as the clearance rate, i.e. how many matters are resolved.

How you measure how long it takes you to set a matter down for trial will vary from region to region. We also have gaps in the data collection, and the digital transformation project should allow us to keep better data and statistics. There's certainly a demand from the public for more information, so we want to ensure it's reliable.

I'm not using the pandemic as an excuse, but I had a lot of plans that were thrown off course for two, if not three years. Now, you're starting to see some of the significant projects beginning. They're going to take time to complete and implement, but they are geared towards improving the efficiency of the entire operation.

Is there anything else you want readers to note?

I'm so thankful that we have a dedicated judiciary of outstanding people. And although there are some exceptions, the lawyers do try. But we must shift a little bit to operate a little bit better. We can continually improve. But our system, our judiciary, is very well respected internationally.

It is not all doom and gloom; we've got a lot of good things happening in our court. Our judges are excited about the future.

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