Ontario's legal system has grown so expensive and bogged down by red tape that it's now inaccessible to many of the people it's meant to serve, the province's new top judge warned on his first full day on the job.
"With the best of intentions, we have designed elaborate rules and practices, engineered to ensure fairness and achieve just results. But perfection can be the enemy of the good," George Strathy told a special sitting of the province's three courts Tuesday afternoon.
Strathy raised concerns about the "cost, complexity and time it takes to complete legal proceedings" just a day after his swearing in as Chief Justice of Ontario, in a ceremony to mark the start of the new court term.
"Having been a lawyer and a judge in this province for over 40 years, it strikes me that we have built a legal system that has become increasingly burdened by its own procedures, reaching a point that we have begun to impede the very justice we are striving to protect," he said.
Strathy urged every level of court to consider how their practices can be simplified, streamlined and made more user-friendly.
A spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General said it is moving to simplify some court procedures and expand capacity.
The measures include more use of video conferencing, a pilot project to give counsel remote access to their clients in the Quinte Detention Centre, and projects to build, expanding, or significantly renovate 28 courthouses, Brendan Crawley said in an email.
Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur said Monday she looks forward to working with Strathy "to improve access to justice and to modernize the delivery of legal services and information."
Strathy's message was hailed by the Ontario Bar Association, which represents the province's lawyers and judges. The association has been working with the province to improve access to the justice system, board member Doug Downey said.
"Some procedures are put in place to solve another problem but they create a problem of their own," said Downey, a practising lawyer in Barrie, Ont.
"If the chief justice is interested, and he certainly sounds like he is, in reviewing the system... sort of at a higher level, we may be able to rationalize some of those procedures," he said.
The Law Society of Upper Canada, meanwhile, said it is "very concerned about the decline in people's ability to access justice across Canada."
The Law Society, which regulates Ontario's lawyers and paralegals, said it has established an Action Group on Access to Justice in an effort to improving access to justice in the province.
Access to justice issues were also brought forward under Strathy's predecessor, Warren Winkler, who retired last year. Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has taken up the cause at the national scale, and legal organizations have held conferences and penned reports on the matter.
Also hampering the justice system is an "acute" need for more courtroom space, Strathy said — a sentiment echoed by the chief justice of Ontario's Superior Court, who warned in her remarks that several communities in the Toronto area lack the facilities "required to discharge our court's core functions."
Heather J. Smith also sounds the alarm over a growing number of judicial vacancies, saying there will be 30 unfilled positions in Superior Court — about 13 per cent of the total — by the end of the year if the province doesn't appoint new judges.
"The seamless filling of judicial vacancies is critical to meeting our court's obligation to Ontarians — children and families in particular," she said, noting 10 of the vacancies will be in family court.
The head of the Ontario Court of Justice, meanwhile, stressed the need to continue modernizing the justice system, citing a recent switch to electronic criminal orders written in "simple, plain language" in courtrooms across the province, as well as a new online scheduling tool for justices of the peace.
"We plan further modernization through broader use of video conferencing, enhanced electronic intake opportunities, and the development of a province-wide judicial scheduling tool," Annemarie E. Bonkalo said in a statement.
Ontario's courts face "significant" challenges, Strathy said, "but they are not unsurmountable."