The Superior Court of Ontario will not be able to deal with child protection cases properly if it is not given more judges soon, Chief Justice Heather Smith told a press conference today.
Chief Justice Smith said that recent legislative changes have meant that cases involving vulnerable children have to be assessed and processed more quickly -- yet the number of judges on her court does not reflect it.
"Even at full complement -- which our court has not been at for some time -- the Superior Court continues to have the lowest judge-to-population ratio of any comparable court in Canada," she told reporters prior an annual ceremony to mark the opening of the courts.
"The most recent data available suggest that over the last eight years -- when the population of Ontario increased by more than two million citizens -- there has been no corresponding increase in judicial complement for the Superior Court of Justice to reflect that," Chief Justice Smith said.
The federal government appoints judges to Superior Court. However, the province is responsible for court administration. Chief Justice Smith said the co-operation of both levels is needed if her court is to meet its priority of dealing with child protections cases as quickly as possible.
"I would urge both the Minister of Justice and the Attorney-General to ensure that sufficient financial support and resources for such expansion are in place before any further expansion of the Family Branch occurs in order that the needs of the public are adequately provided for," she said.
"Everyone agrees that it's in the best interests of the children that these cases be dealt with quickly," Chief Judge Smith told a press conference.
Chief Justice Brian Lennox, of the Ontario Court of Justice, also spoke yesterday of the demands that child welfare cases have placed on his court. While family law cases in general have declined in recent years, he said, there has been a 45 per cent increase in child welfare cases.
"Many would say that these cases are the most important, problematic, litigious and time-consuming cases in family law," Chief Justice Lennox said. "In order to deal with the pressures of the family law caseload, we have had to assign an increasing number of judges out of criminal courts -- with the result that we now have as many , if not more, judges working in the area of family law than at any other time in the history of the Court."
Chief Justice Lennox said this factor has had a direct impact on the criminal case backlogs that were identified recently by the province's auditor-general as a major problem.
The province appointed 15 new judges over the past year, he said, but the infusion has been modestly helpful in the constant battle the judiciary and the Ministry of the Attorney-General wage to streamline case-flow.
"Increases in complement by themselves are rarely a solution and certainly not a permanent solution....There are all manner of different things that could be done to support an initiative to reduce backlog and reduce delays," Chief Justice Lennox said.
"The backlog is largely a phenomenon of urban areas," he told reporters. Some areas have seen a levelling in their caseload, while others have experienced tremendous jumps.
Chief Justice Lennox said changes in criminal legislation have combined with alterations in the way police and prosecutors operate to raise the number of cases building up in the courts.
When the court was given an infusion of judges in 2001, the judge added, "it looked as thought the increase in complement we were getting would have a significant impact on backlog. But changes that have taken place since then were not necessarily foreseen.
"We are trying to identify the factors that have given rise to it [the backlog] but that's difficult," he said. "It is not simply demographics. It is not simply increases in population. Some of it has to do with the specific age of the population, and some of it has to do with population mix."