Globe and Mail

Do more free work, Ontario lawyers urged

Chief justice also cites problem with producing trial transcripts, bogging down appeal process

Thursday, January 7, 1999
by Thomas Claridge, Courts Reporter, Toronto

Ontario's chief justice suggested yesterday that the' province's lawyers consider doing more "pro bone" work, based on 3 per cent of their annual billings or 50 hours a year. in civil cases, he suggested they perform such free legal help for the disadvantaged using some form of contingency fees.

Chief Justice Roy McMurtry also called on the legal profession to help deal with an increasing number of litigants who are showing up in court without a lawyer.

He told a news conference that the problem, particularly noticeable in family-law cases, cannot be solved by legal aid alone.

In his address at the official opening ceremony of Ontario' s courts for 1999, he attributed the problem to a combination of high professional fees and tighter eligibility rules under the province's legal-aid plan. He also said the Court of Appeal has addressed the problem of unrepresented appellants by a duty-counsel system involving free services by defence lawyers and co-operation from the Crown Law Office.

He called slow production of trial transcripts the major problem preventing speedy appeals.

"This systemic problem often delays the perfection of a criminal or civil appeal for a year or two, and sometimes more, after the trial is concluded. "

Describing the situation as "totally unacceptable," he said Attorney-General Charles Harnick is aware of the problem "and his officials have assured me that the timely production of trial transcripts is a high priority."

In the meantime, committees involving the federal Justice Department, Attorney-General's ministry and the legal profession are monitoring the problem.

Asked at the news conference whether he was aware of concerns among court reporters that the province is going to replace them with tape recorders and stenographers, Judge McMurtry said he has no knowledge of what technology is being proposed but that, in parts of the United States, systems have been developed under which transcripts are routinely available on a next-day basis.

He said delays in hearing appeals have been cut dramatically, to the point where civil appeals that once took three years between the completion of paper work and a hearing are being heard in about seven months, and the court has set a new target of three months.

"In criminal appeals, the delays between perfection and hearing have been reduced to four months," he said. However, introduction of fresh evidence in an increasing number of cases "can cause considerable delay."

He also said new efforts to streamline the appeal process include rules permitting documents to be filed electronically and creation of a new Web site.

Chief Justice Patrick LeSage of the Ontario Court's General Division said a declining case load in the superior courts has been largely offset by the lengthening of both civil and criminal trials, to the point where two criminal trials in the province are in their third years.

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