Attorney General Addresses Opening of the Courts of Ontario for 2008
Speech given by the Honourable Chris Bentley, Attorney General of Ontario, Toronto Court House at 361 University Avenue, Toronto
Chief Justices, regional senior judges, regional senior justices of the peace, members of the judiciary, Mr. Treasurer, distinguished colleagues from the Bar and the Legislature, representatives of the Chiefs of Police, honoured guests.
To every one of our partners in justice, thank you. Thank you for the role you play in our system of justice. Whether you are a member of the judiciary, counsel, administrative and court staff, police, corrections, legal aid, a social agency or other legal organization, our system of justice is made up of many partners. The part each of you play is important. Justice is the result of our joint efforts. I want to make specific mention of my colleagues at the Ministry of the Attorney General, for the work they do every day to achieve justice.
Our system of justice is the foundation of our society. A strong system of justice makes for a strong society. We have every reason to be confident in our system of justice. People from all over the world feel this confidence, demonstrated most clearly when they come here from all corners of the globe. They come for many reasons, but among them is the knowledge that as they build their lives, provide for their families, and realize their dreams, their rights will be protected in a way they might not be elsewhere in the world.
Public safety is at the heart of a strong society. Ontario is a safe province, thanks to the unique roles played by our courts and our police. Crime is down in Ontario. The crime rate, as measured by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, shows that Ontario had the lowest crime rate in Canada last year. From 2000 to 2007, Ontario experienced an 18 per cent reduction in its overall crime rate, including a 17 per cent reduction in violent crime.
Our system of justice is one we share with a small number of jurisdictions in the world. Our system of checks and balances is found in but a few of those. The willingness to question, where evidence and right demand, even after those checks and balances are spent, is found in fewer still. The courage to act on the result, and to change the system for the future, is a strength, not a weakness. It is a sign of a society determined to achieve justice.
Justice is a trust we hold for the people of Ontario. It must work for all of the people of Ontario and be accessible to all Ontarians. I want to commend the efforts of all in our determination to ensure a faster, more accessible, and more affordable justice system. In particular, let me thank those who work pro bono, or through the legal aid plan.
Legal Aid provides assistance to those who would not otherwise have it. I have taken legal aid cases from the day I started at the Bar. I know the importance of this work. I am determined to build on the progress over the past four years and strengthen our assistance for those who need it.
In spite of all our hard work and progress, there is more to do.
Lawyers are the ultimate reformers. Every day we challenge the accepted in other walks of life. We challenge what has always been, in favour of what should be. Regardless of the business, profession, or enterprise we encounter - we challenge. The words, "because we have always done it this way" would not be accepted as an answer by any judge, in any court, from any counsel, for any client, in any case. When it comes to the affairs of others, we favour principle over process every time. But do we always have the same zeal to reform and renew our own process - our system of justice?
Many of you have spoken to me about the just and fair resolution of disputes by a system of justice that must be accessible, affordable, and expeditious - but does not always meet these goals. There are more unrepresented litigants in our courts. These are real challenges that must - not should - must be met. They will only be met by our collective efforts.
We have the opportunity to take the same reformist approach that we apply to others, and apply it to ourselves. Society has gone from the encyclopedia to Google, from fax to Facebook, in less than five years. Time is moving on. The challenges are now.
At the heart of our approach is a recognition that every justice partner contributes to justice, and will be needed for its continuous renewal. The initiatives that we have started over the past year are many and varied, but have at their heart the recognition that we are all partners - and neither the knowledge nor the answer resides with any one of us - but it does reside with all of us.
The starting point for renewal must be: get to the decision point faster. Process must never be allowed to obscure principle. How many pieces of paper does it take to get to the decision point - and why? How many appearances, and why? Simplify, streamline, and bring the decision makers together as quickly as possible, with what they need to make the decision. Every piece of paper, and every step, equals time and cost. Each must be essential to the result.
The public's faith in our justice system is promoted by a better understanding of it. The first step toward improving access is providing information - in an easy to understand way. This is why we're opening the courts to all Ontarians with Justice Ontario, a new one-stop roadmap of Ontario's justice system. We're working with the Law Society, and other legal organizations, through the Access Partnership, to connect the public - online and in 173 languages over the phone - with ever-evolving legal information and the next level of legal assistance, be it a lawyer, or a family law information centre - whatever is needed. Let us completely open up, and make more understandable, our justice system to those we serve. In the process, all will have better access to justice.
When the public starts a legal journey with the right information, and can identify the right pathway from the start, we are making more effective use of justice resources and improving access to the justice system.
We launched Justice on Target to speed up our criminal justice system. In spite of all of our best efforts over the years, it now takes almost twice as long, and more than twice as many appearances, to complete a criminal case than it did 15 years ago. Most of the appearances are adjournments. We have invested a lot of time, effort and resources in adjourning cases, which usually does not enhance the achievement of justice.
This shared challenge presents us with a great opportunity to move to justice faster, and focus our resources on our priorities. Our new Justice on Target strategy will meet the challenge to reduce court delays and appearances by 30 per cent over the next four years. We set a target - what gets measured gets done.
We've made our work transparent and ourselves accountable by making available criminal court statistics for the first time, so that the public can follow the progress of the strategy and see its impact on courthouses in their local communities. I have held about 16 meetings with our justice partners throughout Ontario. I am not surprised by the determination, enthusiasm and ideas for success that have emerged from these meetings.
I would like to thank Senior Regional Justice Durno, and Crown Attorney Ken Anthony, for leading this project, and the expert panel, with Associate Chief Justice Griffiths and our other justice partners, for your expertise.
While Justice on Target will address 90 per cent of the cases flowing through our criminal courts, the other 10 per cent pose unique challenges due to their size and complexity. That's why I sought out the wisdom and expertise of former Chief Justice Patrick LeSage and Professor Michael Code to lead a review of large and complex criminal case procedures. Their report will help us develop new policies and procedures for Crown prosecutors, and point the way to more effective practices by all justice partners.
Many of you have spoken about a civil justice system that was slowing down, and becoming too expensive for too many. Former Associate Chief Justice Coulter Osborne made this point in his Civil Justice Reform Project, which has given us the blueprint for a strengthened civil justice system, one that resolves disputes faster with lower costs. Over the past year, I've travelled to about 20 meetings throughout Ontario to speak with the judiciary, the legal community and the public about his recommendations. These recommendations have broad support and acceptance. We are working with our justice partners to move forward with his recommendations.
Our desire to see justice achieved in a timely fashion by simplifying the steps needed to reach the decision point is also reflected in Ontario's groundbreaking new human rights system. On June 30th of this year, we launched a stronger system to prevent discrimination, providing everyone in Ontario with faster access to human rights adjudicators and legal support if they need it. I want to thank those who made this smooth transition possible for all of their hard work, and for embracing the pressing need for reform.
I want to thank former Chief Justice Roy McMurtry for his report on victim compensation. Mr. McMurtry's advice will help the province to accelerate integrating victim services and make them more transparent, as we build on improvements made to victim services in recent years.
No matter where I go in Ontario, the need for strengthening our system of family law is at the tip of everyone's tongue - even in today's speeches! A longstanding shortage of Superior Court judges had led to growing delays in some family courts, especially in areas with large population growth. Delay adds expense and stress for people who go to court only to be told there are too many cases on the list for their case to be reached that day--or that they will have to wait several hours before a judge is available. For over four years, our government asked for 12 new federal judges to relieve pressure on our Family Courts. So far we have six.
We have started work on a reform and renewal approach in family law, including legislative changes. I have called, as did my predecessor, for expanding the Unified Family Court. But the issues of access, the challenges posed by unrepresented litigants, and the time it takes cases to move through the system, will not be fully addressed unless we also look for more opportunities to simplify and streamline, building on the work that has already been undertaken.
The Ministry of the Attorney General and the Superior Court of Justice recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding formalizing and strengthening the positive relationship between the ministry and the court. This document increases the effectiveness of the ministry and the court by setting out areas of responsibility and providing flexibility to address future issues, while addressing the Provincial Auditor's recommendation to increase accountability and transparency in the ministry's relationship with the court. We now have Memoranda of Understanding with both of our trial courts, already having one with the Ontario Court of Justice.
The work that you do is the foundation on which this great country rests. As we open the Courts in 2008, I hope you enjoy success as we work to confront the unique challenges before us. It is an honour to work with you as we strive to build a more just society for all. Thank you.