January 7, 1999
Many lack lawyers in court
Chief justice blames legal fees for problem
By Tracey Tyler
Toronto Star Legal Affairs Reporter
Too many people in Ontario are showing up in court without lawyers - and it's becoming the legal system's biggest problem, the province's chief justice says.
``If the daily calls to my office are representative, there can be no doubt but that many of our fellow citizens do not have access to needed legal advice,'' Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry said yesterday.
Speaking at a news conference before an annual ceremony to mark the opening of the province's courts, McMurtry suggested ``the high cost of litigation'' was the main reason for the problem.
While the number of disadvantaged people appears to be growing, it's unlikely any government could provide legal aid to everyone for whom the cost of hiring a lawyer is out of reach, he said.
Calling the absence of legal representation the major challenge facing the justice system in the next millennium, McMurtry said he's encouraged by a Canadian Bar Association resolution that could require lawyers to donate 50 free hours or 3 per cent of their billings each year for legal help.
But there are other serious, immediate problems facing the court system, including lengthy delays, said McMurtry, who was joined at the news conference by Chief Justice Patrick LeSage and Chief Judge Sidney Linden, the respective heads of the Ontario Court's general and provincial divisions.
While court backlogs have dropped marginally in the past year, there are still long waits for the production of court transcripts, grinding many civil and criminal appeals to a halt for two or more years after a trial.
In some, the sentence has been served before the appeal is heard, McMurtry said.
``The problem as it exists today is totally unacceptable, and can only serve to bring the administration of the justice system into disrepute,'' he said.
The judges' concerns coincide with a wave of angst that has been spreading through the ranks of court reporters in recent weeks over unconfirmed reports that the provincial government has resurrected plans to replace them with tape recording devices.
Fresh evidence has caused delays
Meanwhile, in a growing number of other cases awaiting appeal, delays have arisen because fresh evidence has surfaced, often in the form of a recanting witness, that may cast doubt on someone's guilt, McMurtry said.
He added that the number of cases in this category has increased since the inquiry into Guy Paul Morin's wrongful 1992 murder conviction, which featured evidence of a recanting jailhouse informant witness.
``To what extent the Morin inquiry encouraged people to come forward is a matter of pure speculation,'' McMurtry said.
``But it is a challenging phenomenon for the courts, particularly the Court of Appeal.''
As for the future of court transcripts, the judges said yesterday they had no details about any plan to switch to tape recorders. Linden said he understood the method of recording trial proceedings was being examined in conjunction with a computerization of the courts.
Court reporters have argued that digital recording systems considered by the government in the past have led to sloppy, inaccurate transcripts when tried elsewhere.
The government would have to address those concerns as well as ensure there is no extra cost to litigants and confidential information is protected, LeSage said.
Meanwhile, technology has entered the system in other ways. In an effort to be more people-friendly, and erase their image as ``a mysterious club of lawyers and judges,'' as McMurtry put it, the courts have set up a Web site to explain their workings and to post judgments.