Legal system making slow but sure steps to timely justice, top judge says

OTTAWA — Following years of backlogs and delays, Canadian courts are making slow but steady progress toward more timely justice, the country's top judge says.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner told a news conference Thursday things are on the right path almost three years after the high court set out strict timelines for completing criminal trials.

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Governments, judges, law societies and lawyers must work together to continue improving the system, he said. "It's not one magic solution, it's many small things, small actions."

These steps could include revising procedural rules, increasing funding, bolstering legal aid or having lawyers do more pro-bono work for clients who cannot afford counsel, he suggested.

Wagner's comments come after Legal Aid Ontario received $133 million less than anticipated this fiscal year, a cut that eliminated provincial funding for refugee and immigration law services.

"It's not my place to comment on the decisions of elected officials," he said. "But I have to say this: I think that legal aid is essential to the justice system, to make sure that the justice system is strong and fair. And it's also a smart investment."

Wagner cited research showing a six-to-one return on every dollar spent on legal aid. "So that's not only a wise choice, but it's a right choice to make sure that people have access to legal aid."

Despite such exceptions, he is encouraged to see some governments putting money back into the legal system.

The Supreme Court's landmark August 2016 decision on timely justice spoke of a "culture of complacency" in the justice system in laying out a new framework for determining whether there has been an unreasonable delay in a criminal case. The decision, which said simpler cases should typically go to trial within 18 months after charges are laid and more complicated ones within 30 months, has led to numerous cases being dropped.

The ruling set off alarm bells for governments, Wagner believes. "And they reacted positively, I think, in most provinces, and on the federal level. And they realized that they needed to invest more money, and that should be a continued effort.

"I think we are on the right path, but it's such a big problem — the delays, the cost."

Wagner said it's important to change not only procedures and guidelines, but the way people think about access to justice.

The Supreme Court plans to visit Winnipeg in September to hear two appeals and meet with Manitobans — the first time the court will sit outside of Ottawa.

Taking the high court on the road is part of an effort to make it more accessible to the public, something Wagner sees as a big part of a truly effective justice system.

"We will try to find new ways every year."

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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