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Four simple ways to make our courts more efficient

Trials & Tribulations
|Written By Margaret L. Waddell
Four simple ways to make our courts more efficient

The annual September opening of the courts is upon us, and with that traditional passing, I have turned my thoughts to a few simple methods by which we can improve efficiencies in the system.

1.    Hire more clerks for the judges

Currently in Ontario, the Superior Court judges share clerks. For the 242 Superior Court judges, there are only 22 clerks, and they are located in only nine of 51 courts. Which means at best, each judge has access to less than one-tenth of a clerk, and some have none.

In the United States, typically each judge has two or three clerks, and even some magistrates employ judicial clerks. It is no wonder that the American judicial system works more efficiently than ours. If more clerks were engaged to assist our overburdened judges, this would substantially free up our scant judicial resources. Furthermore, it would be much less expensive than hiring more judges, who would still have to do their own research, scheduling, and drafting.

As an added bonus, the creation of more clerking positions would also assist in reducing the number of law school graduates who are unable to obtain articling positions. This is an easy fix that would have a major impact to improve the system.

2.    Create an online reservation system for motion scheduling

As one of my colleagues recently mused to me — why is it that we can make an online dinner reservation for a table of six in another city or even in another country for a month hence, but we have to attend, gowned, at court to schedule a motion?  

Applications like “Doodle” allow individuals to select mutually convenient times for meetings and conference calls. There are innumerable programs that let athletic club members book a court or a class online, and even send an automatic reminder 24 hours prior to the scheduled appointment. Surely a computer system can be designed that would allow parties to choose a mutually convenient date and time for a hearing based upon the available court times? The calendar of time available in each courtroom is already available electronically to the courthouse staff. It would not be an incredible leap to establish an on-line reservation system for motions court, too.

3.    Abolish automatic dismissals

A step is being made in the right direction here, with the proposed amendment to the Rule 48.15 to allow a plaintiff to extend the time before automatic dismissal of their claim as abandoned by filing a form with the court. The proposed rule change would allow the time to be extended by one year.

But why create a “fix” to an acknowledged problem by creating even more paperwork and process? The rule was created to remove the deadwood from the court files. But the cases that weren’t moving were not creating inefficiencies, other than taking up a bit of filing space in the courthouse. Why not simply do away with the rule, and deliver an administrative directive that files that have been dormant for in excess of 12 months will be moved off-site?

Let the parties pay to bring the file back from storage. And leave it up to the parties to remove the cases from the docket, either by filing a discontinuance or a motion to dismiss for delay. The abolition of this rule would free up administrative resources and reduce costs for litigants whose cases are not moving in step with arbitrarily imposed deadlines.

4.    Establish a province-wide online database of current court cases

Could someone explain to me why we don’t have this? Why do you have to go to the court to search the current case list and to find out what filings have been made in a particular matter? And why can you only access that one court’s lists? This is a data processing and online accessibility issue. The technology exists. It works in other jurisdictions. It can work in Ontario, too. In the information age, we should be able to access this basic information online. The courts are, after all, meant to be a public forum.

To the same end, the daily court case lists should be available directly from the courts’ web site. In Toronto, the Toronto Lawyers’ Association posts the court lists on its web site. However, for mysterious reasons, until recently they were only provided with a faxed copy of the list — now a legible pdf is available, but not for all matters. While TLA members may know of and take advantage of this service, it is not the same thing as making the dockets accessible to the public at large.

I appreciate that most of these recommendations have a price tag attached to them. But none of these changes would be extraordinary or excessive in cost. Furthermore, each change would go a long way to improving efficiencies, improving access to justice, and generally improving the reputation of the courts in Ontario.

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