Ottawa Citizen
Thursday 7 January 1999

High costs and delays tie up courts, chief justices say

Natalie Armstrong
The Ottawa Citizen

TORONTO -- High legal costs and trial transcript delays are among the problems complicating the delivery of justice for many Ontario citizens, the province's chief justices say.

Although a long-standing backlog of cases was reduced last year, everyone from Ontario's less affluent citizens to its highest-profile criminals, including convicted murderer Paul Bernardo, are facing access barriers to justice.

Ontario court judges have also witnessed a "growing phenomena" of litigants appearing in court without lawyers, said Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry in officially opening the province's courts for 1999 yesterday.

A day doesn't go by for Judge McMurtry, or his office, when they don't hear of Ontarians "who have somehow fallen between the chairs when it comes to obtaining adequate legal representation," the former attorney general said.

This is particularly true in family law cases and in major cities where costs are high to run a law practice.

"The major challenge facing the justice system in the next millennium will be the absence of adequate legal advice and legal representation to our society's increasing numbers of disadvantaged," he said.

Because eligibility rules for legal aid -- still under revision -- have been tightened, fewer people are qualifying compared to a few years ago.

To help, Judge McMurtry has called on lawyers to devote either three per cent of their income or 50 hours a year to pro bono work for those who can't afford counsel.

The courts are also facing other problems, including document delays.

Paul Bernardo, convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 for the gruesome sex slayings of teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, is still awaiting trial transcripts 312 years later so he can pursue an appeal of his two life sentences.

Long delays are common in hearing criminal appeals, Judge McMurtry said, adding he has committees monitoring the problem.

However, the number of pending civil cases last year dropped by 11 per cent, while pending criminal cases were reduced by three per cent.