Speech

Better Justice Together text banner with coloured logo

Keynote Remarks for

Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur

at the launch of

Better Justice Together
Attorney General’s Four-Year
Access to Justice Strategy

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
8:30 a.m.

Better Justice Together Conference
St. Andrews Club and Conference Centre
150 University Ave.
Toronto

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Thank you, Deputy Monahan, for that kind introduction.

I’d like to begin by thanking each of you for being here today.

Over the course of the day’s workshop, and in the weeks and months ahead, you will have a chance to contribute to innovative discussions on how we can continue to improve access to justice in Ontario.

As the name of our event implies, we must work together if we are to truly make a difference.

You are here today because each of you is committed to improving access to justice in some way.

As Henry Ford once said: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

Today is that beginning.

Individually, you are doing great work to advance this principle.

Collectively, we have a historic opportunity before us.

Beginning today, we have a chance to address what I would argue is the most pressing justice issue of our time. And partnership is what today is all about.

As you know, ensuring meaningful access to justice is a significant challenge. There are no easy answers, and this is not an issue that any one of us can solve on our own. Collaboration will be the key.

However, in the face of daunting challenges, history has shown us that monumental change is possible when people work together.

The inclusion of a charter of rights in the Constitution Act was a hotly-debated issue of the day.

However, the different political factions, together with Canadian citizens of all stripes, eventually overcame this challenge.

The result was a document that solidifies many of the fundamental rights and freedoms that are now the hallmark of our great country.

Our legal aid system is also something we now rely on. It too was originally the product of innovative thinking, unexpected partnerships and leadership to find an Ontario solution to a significant justice problem.

What if the leaders of the past had given up because the task was too difficult? Where would we be today?

If it was easy, someone would have done it already.

When I look around this room I see a group of people who are not content to simply talk about the problems we face – your work to date is proof of that.

Instead, I see people who are committed to finding meaningful solutions to address the challenges before us.

Today we can begin to harness this energy in new and exciting ways.

I don’t need to convince you how important this issue is. But while access to justice is a phrase that has been used a lot over the years with numbers, statistics and graphs, I think of it in terms of the people who are going through the system.

I imagine Julie. Julie is the mother of three children, one in daycare and two in elementary school. She works at the local hospital, and volunteers for the PTA. We may be helping Julie navigate the family court as a self-represented litigant seeking custody of her children.

She may have to interpret complicated forms, search to find information about court processes, and request time off work to appear in court.

We must continue to do everything we can to ensure Julie is not overwhelmed by the complexity of the very legal system she turns to for help. Much positive work has already been done, and we must continue to build on it.

I think of Sam, who is on remand along with thousands of others, waiting for his day in criminal court. We must continue the momentum generated by initiatives such as Justice on Target to make our criminal courts as efficient as possible.

I see Amir, who’s been evicted from his apartment and is forced to live in a shelter. He may have lost his job as a result. Amir is turning to our busy tribunal system for help. We must continue to look for ways to improve our services for Amir, and thousands of others like him.

These are the faces behind the access to justice issue. And they are the reason we must continue our work to overcome this great challenge.

The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, has described access to justice as a basic right for Canadians, like education or health care.

Her Honour is right. It is not a privilege that should be afforded to some and not to others. And it is not a service that should be better in one area than another.

Access to justice has been a particular concern of mine since my days as the Minister of Community and Social Services. There, I saw many vulnerable people – particularly women – in need of support when dealing with legal problems.

During my time as the minister for Community Safety and Correctional Services, I saw the plight of many who came into contact with our justice system without the right supports. On a daily basis, I was responsible for twelve thousand people with mental illnesses, either in jail or serving their sentence in the community on probation or parole.

As Minister responsible for Francophone Affairs, I’ve seen the challenges Francophones can have accessing government services. When in crisis people want to use their maternal language. That is why we are working on initiatives such as a pilot project to provide seamless French language services at the Ottawa courthouse.

We must also consider the unique needs of Aboriginal Peoples in our province. Some of you may be familiar with our work in this area to date:

  • We’ve formed an Implementation Committee to help us act on the recommendations of the Honourable Frank Iacobucci’s report on First Nations representation on the province’s juries.
  • We’ve created an Aboriginal Justice Advisory Group to examine important issues affecting Aboriginal Peoples in the justice system.
  • And we’re now hiring an Assistant Deputy Attorney General to lead our newly-created Aboriginal Justice Division.

As Attorney General, improving access to our justice system is one of my top priorities. It is the first priority in my mandate letter from Premier Wynne, which is available publicly for the first time.

Despite our work to date, and the best efforts of many in this room, we still have a justice system in need of reform.

As you know, the case for change has already been made.

Just look at the conclusions drawn from the numerous reports and studies right here in front of me. They have all documented the access to justice issue.

Behind each of these reports are thousands of people like Julie, Sam and Amir who rely on our justice system.

Chief Justice George Strathy echoed similar concerns in his recent address at the Opening of the Courts for Ontario and again here today.

His Honour warned that our justice system has become so cumbersome and expensive that it has become inaccessible to some of our citizens.

We have heard the call, and much progress is already being made.

All three levels of court are committed to making improvements. Their presence here today is evidence of that.

The formation of The Action Group is further proof. It was established to foster collaboration across the justice system on a range of access to justice initiatives.

Working closely with Legal Aid Ontario, our government is moving forward with an ambitious plan that will allow over one million more people to qualify for legal aid services.

The 2014 Budget includes an initial investment of ninety-five point seven million dollars to increase the eligibility threshold by six per cent per year in each of the first three years. The initial increase took effect on November 1, 2014. Further six per cent increases will be effective April 1, 2015, and April 1, 2016.

This is the first time the legal aid eligibility threshold has changed since 1996. It is also the largest infusion of new funding in the history of legal aid aimed at helping more people qualify.

I am extremely proud to serve as Attorney General in a government that is prepared to make such significant investments in advancing access to justice, even at a time of scarce resources.

Today’s event is yet another example of our collective response. These discussions will result in much more of this positive work.

We are also prepared to look to examples beyond this province, and, potentially, even beyond the justice sector.

That is why it is fitting that, beginning here today, I commit to working with you to implement a comprehensive strategy to build a better justice system, together.

Over the coming weeks, months and years, we will work with you to improve access to justice by:

  • Increasing online access to services
  • Improving access to legal information and assistance
  • And promoting innovation within the justice system.

Initially, we will focus our energies in four areas:

  • 1. We will modernize ministry processes and technologies to make our services more efficient, and improve the flow of information between all justice partners.
  • 2. In the realm of family justice, we will improve outcomes for families by diverting appropriate cases out of court, and offering a broader range of supportive services and information.
  • 3. We will continue to modernize and streamline our court processes to improve access to justice, and improve efficiency to better serve our customers.
  • 4. And we will work with our justice and community partners to better support individuals with mental health issues who come into contact with the justice system, including at the bail and sentencing stages.

Over the course of today, as well as in the next few months, we will have more details to share with you about each of these initiatives.

Information flow will be a hallmark of our strategy. We will be transparent in our approach, both in the initial phase of our plan, and in future phases.

And we will be collaborative.

I believe that the best solutions come from those in the system. My approach has always been based on listening, not dictating outcomes.

Soon I will be forming a minister’s roundtable.

I want to seek out as many valuable perspectives as I can – the judiciary, service providers, legal organizations, lawyers in the private bar, Legal Aid Ontario and the police to name just a few.

I want to work together to come up with the kind of solutions that will have lasting impacts for those who rely on our justice system.

I’ve seen first-hand how well this approach can work. When I was Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services I created a civil liberties round table.

While I initially questioned the idea, my perspective changed after meeting with Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Police associations, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association and others.

I believe we can achieve the same success here. I will have more details to share about the roundtable very soon, and I look forward to your participation.

The first component of our vision – modernization – will be the focus of much of today’s discussion.

Access to justice isn’t just about new programs and policy. And it isn’t just about investing more money. Our recent budgetary investments aside, the fact is there isn’t a lot of funding available.

We need to think of innovation as a means to improve. New processes and technology changes have the power to significantly increase access for the thousands of people like Julie, Sam and Amir.

As much as possible people should have access to legal representation, when representation is not possible, we must provide them with the information and tools they require.

In the areas of civil and family law, I envision more self-service channels to initiate and manage cases.

I see better online resources to help those who may be representing themselves.

I see single, electronic data entry points to eliminate the need to re-enter information.

I see automated processes providing guidance and information to participants electronically – not by paper.

  • For Julie it would mean making it easier to navigate the courts. Or better yet, avoiding the courts altogether in favour of resolutions built on consensus, minimizing the time Julie has to take off work.
  • I see her results shared automatically with the Family Responsibility Office, or other government agencies.
  • I see better outcomes for her, and for her children.

In the criminal realm, I envision the seamless, electronic flow of information from the moment someone comes into contact with the justice system.

I see improved information sharing, more efficient use of resources, and stronger analytics to help us make better decisions, earlier.

  • For Sam it could mean more efficient case management, allowing him to get his day in court faster and spending less time in remand

In the tribunal sector, I see us building on the benefits of clustering through initiatives such as co-location.

I see movement toward common case management systems, and exploring innovative, electronic dispute resolution processes.

  • For Amir it could mean being able to resolve his case online and avoid an actual hearing.

Despite our best efforts, government hasn’t been a leader in harnessing the power of technology. The reality is we are not where we should be. So you may be asking yourself, “Why now? What’s different this time?”

Those are fair questions.

First, we have fundamentally changed our approach to revitalizing processes and technologies.

We are now focusing our efforts on projects that are incremental, targeted, and meet the expectations of court and tribunal users and the public.

And we are seeing some early successes. For example:

  • We are piloting a system in four cities to allow people to file certain Small Claims Court matters online.
  • Over the past month, about seventeen per cent of small claims, on average, have been filed online each week.
  • My hometown of Ottawa has had the highest percentage with nearly thirty per cent of plaintiff’s claims filed online. Many of them were done outside of regular business hours – imagine people filing in their pyjamas.
  • Of the four hundred and fifty-four cases filed electronically in the province, twenty-four have already resulted in people filing for default judgement.
  • This system will be rolled out across the province early in the new year.
  • In April we launched a new online service, in partnership with the judiciary, which is making it easier for people to find out where and when they need to go to court.
  • In the first six months alone, the online court lists website has received more than two hundred and thirty-thousand visits.

And in the coming year we will:

  • Continue to develop an easy-to-use online service to make it faster for parents to set up or change child support payments, without having to go to court.
  • Implement a Search Warrants Tracking System pilot in Toronto that we will assess for province-wide rollout. The system will allow court staff, regardless of where they are, to easily search for and find warrants.
  • And we will continue to work in partnership with the police to enhance our Crown case management system, called SCOPE, which enables electronic disclosure.
  • The system is currently in place in Toronto, and we will expand it across the province to give all Crown prosecutors access to this valuable technology.

So we are already making progress. But we must continue to build on this momentum in the months and years ahead.

That is why we are taking a long, hard look at our complex processes, technologies and organizational structure.

To that end, the ministry has been working with Gartner Consultants, an international expert in research and technology. With their help we are developing a vision for 21st century processes and technologies, and identifying the steps we need to get there.

This is exciting work, and is something we’ve never done before. But this work is by no means complete.

As I said at the outset, it is only through collaboration that we will succeed.

Today we will be presenting you with the initial results of that work. We want, and need, your input to further refine our plans.

It will be an ongoing discussion that won’t end when you leave here. As integral justice sector participants, we need your help to define and champion change across the system.

While money can help solve some access to justice problems like legal aid eligibility – it cannot solve everything. Given our fiscal climate, the reality is that other priorities tend to take over, such as balancing the budget and job creation.

But this should not – must not – weaken for a moment our resolve to address this pressing issue.

It will take effort, and it will mean thinking in new ways. Tough decisions will need to be made.

But through partnership, we can meet the challenge.

There are lots of ways we can deliver better service to the public, and at less cost to us. Each of you has to be part of the change. As I said before, the best solutions come from those in the system.

I’ve highlighted a number of exciting projects today. But we will be working collaboratively, through initiatives such as our roundtable, to ensure that these and other projects truly address the challenges on the ground, with solutions that have been developed on the ground.

And it starts today, right here in this room.

We owe it to ourselves as committed justice sector participants.

But more importantly, we owe it to the thousands of people like Julie, Sam and Amir who rely on our justice system.

Ladies and gentlemen, I call on each and every one of us to create better justice, together.

Thank you. Merci.

[END]