Nov 22, 2007 04:12 PM
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Ontario's civil justice system needs to resolve disputes more quickly and cost less for those who need it, former associate chief justice Coulter Osborne said today in a report detailing how best to improve public access to the "people's court."
Osborne was commissioned by the Ontario government last summer to recommend improvements to a system that has become too costly and complex for many people, said Attorney General Chris Bentley.
"It effectively means for some people they don't have access to the courts because they simply can't afford the money and the time it takes to get (their problems) resolved," Bentley said.
"I think there's been a general observation that more and more people are going to our civil courts without a lawyer, so the problem of the unrepresented litigant (is on the rise)."
Osborne is calling for a dramatic increase in the number of cases to be heard in small claims court – the "people's court," he calls it – by more than doubling the so-called monetary jurisdiction to $25,000, up from the current limit of $10,000.
While the significant increase would need to be phased in and would result in the need for new facilities and staff, the small claims system is worth the investment, he said.
"Its procedures are straightforward . . . costs related to small claims court matters are significantly lower than is the case in the Superior Court," Osborne writes in his report.
"The court is geared to, and does, dispense justice quickly."
The legal aid community expressed delight with Osborne's recommendations, which couldn't have come too soon, said Lynn Burns, executive director of Pro Bono Law Ontario.
"There's just so many people that have been falling through the cracks each year, having to figure their way through the civil justice system without legal representation, and it's very difficult for them."
The small claims court system is already the busiest in the province, with more than 75,000 new proceedings commenced in 2005-06, compared with about 63,000 in Superior Court.
Osborne also said more assistance is needed for litigants who choose to represent themselves without legal advice, because lawyers' fees are increasingly pricing low and middle-class people out of court.
"I am of the view that the civil justice system must exist to serve members of the public – whether represented or not," he writes.
Osborne wants bar associations and civil litigators to expand their free pro bono services wherever possible, and that more self-help material be made available to litigants who decide to launch a case without a lawyer.
"What is also missing is plain-language material for the public on the civil justice system generally, and on substantive areas of the law that commonly affect unrepresented litigants," the report says.
"The needs of the unrepresented should not and cannot be met by the spirit of volunteerism of the Ontario bar alone."
In all, Osborne made recommendations covering 18 areas of law, including unrepresented litigants, trial management, appeals, technology, and courtroom civility.
Osborne carried out consultations provincewide, had three advisory committees, and reviewed over 60 written submissions from legal associations, lawyers, members of the judiciary and the public.
His full report is expected later this year.
Bentley said he wanted to release the summary of the report early to get further feedback from the legal community and public, so some recommendations can be implemented as soon as possible.
He promised to forward some recommendations to the federal government, including a call to appoint more Superior Court judges in several Ontario courts that are currently overburdened.
Some have argued that Ottawa's Superior Court appointments have not kept pace with Ontario's population, which has increased significantly in the last 18 years.
"The need for more judges is palpable to the extent that, I think, an overwhelming case exists for increasing the number of judges," Osborne said.
"Based on the best available data, Ontario has the highest population-to-judge ratio of all Canadian jurisdictions."
Bentley said it will be several months before he can begin to consider which recommendations to implement.