In the face of mounting challenges exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) continues to demonstrate its commitment to improve justice and work to ensure more accessible legal proceedings for Ontarians. Lawyers from across the province have united under the leadership of the OBA, exploring innovative solutions to address the short-term backlog in the courts and spearheading efforts for meaningful long-term civil justice reform.
"We are not ones to sit idly by or to shy away from problems. The OBA is always here to step up to bring lawyers together and provide a place for action to happen," says OBA President Kelly McDermott. “Access to justice has always been a priority at the OBA, and ensuring that the public has timely access is a critical part of this."
Meaningful long-term civil justice reform means looking at more than a review of the Rules, or short-term fixes. That is why the OBA is using a two-pronged approach: short-term solutions to address the backlog, in addition to devising a strategy for meaningful change to the civil justice system in Ontario.
Bail the Boat: Immediate Short-Term Solutions to Address Backlog
Building on ongoing work and recognizing the urgency of the situation, this past summer the OBA launched the "Bail the Boat" sessions – a series of focused townhall style brainstorming sessions that brought our members together (barristers and solicitors) from every region of Ontario to generate immediate solutions to the backlog in civil courts. Bail the Boat is about engaging our members to come together as a community to share ideas that are directed at getting through the backlog in the very short term.
The ideas proposed during these sessions were wide-ranging. Noteworthy among them were:
- Expanding the family law Dispute Resolution model to civil matters to facilitate the resolution of cases at an earlier stage.
- The establishment of a province-wide cross-regional virtual court that could harness technology to conduct hearings and proceedings remotely across all regions.
- Expanding court hours to include early mornings, nights and weekends to accommodate lawyers and decision-makers and parties who may prefer to have their case heard outside of currently available hours.
Other ideas included the use of targeted blitzes, digital platforms for scheduling, the enhancement of default filing procedures, and the expansion of mandatory mediation to streamline court operations.
Setting the Stage for Change: Long-Term Meaningful Reform of the Civil Justice System
While tackling the immediate backlog is crucial, the OBA has its sights set on broader, lasting reform of the civil justice system. A special Civil Justice Reform Taskforce has been established to delve into comprehensive civil justice reform, aiming to address the root causes of delays and inefficiencies, and to modernize the system to ensure it can meet the needs of Ontarians in the future.
"We’ve heard some great ideas from our members, and I believe we have some real short-term solutions to the backlog we are seeing in our civil courts," McDermott says, adding that some ideas proposed during the “Bail the Boat” sessions are already being implemented by the courts, including the introduction of Calendly in some regions, establishing a “Triage Court” for scheduling related to long motions (Brampton), the elimination of “placeholder motions”, and express court for short motions (Toronto). "Chief Justice Morawetz has indicated that the current situation can't continue, so that speaks to the seriousness of the problem. We are looking forward to continuing to advocate for the implementation of some of the other great ideas from our members to help alleviate the problem.”
All Hands on Deck
The OBA's commitment to resolving this crisis is unwavering as it recognizes the vital role that lawyers play in shaping solutions. While lawyers are not responsible for the delays, their expertise, ideas, and experience uniquely position them to contribute to the development of effective solutions. The "Bail the Boat" sessions were examples of how the OBA can offer platforms to collaborate, share insights and guide the advocacy efforts of the association.
"This is an all-hands-on-deck problem. And we're on it," McDermott says.
In addition to its immediate and long-term reform initiatives, the OBA has been actively engaged in advocating for the appointment of judges to fill vacancies. Recognizing that judicial vacancies contribute to delays and undermine public confidence in the justice system, the OBA has worked to improve the appointment process and ensure that well-qualified and diverse candidates are considered.
Embracing Modernization for Enhanced Access
The pandemic underscored the importance of technological innovation in modernizing the justice system. The OBA has actively supported the integration of technology into court proceedings, facilitating the transition to virtual hearings and remote operations. This shift has not only maintained access to justice during challenging times but has opened up new pathways for efficiency and cost savings.
"Our court system was already overburdened prior to the pandemic, but COVID and its effects made the problem worse," says McDermott. "Technology has the potential to help us improve both service to the public and practice feasibility."
Charting the Path Forward
The OBA’s commitment to immediate solutions and meaningful long-term reform highlights its dedication to preserving the integrity of the justice system. With a focus on collaboration, innovation and modernization, the legal community is poised to drive constructive change. As civil justice reform efforts continue, the OBA remains steadfast in its mission to enhance access to justice, maintain public confidence, and build a resilient legal system for the future.
About the author
Michael Speers is the OBA's media and communications specialist.