Letter to the Attorney General of Ontario

Modernization of Ontario Courts and Self-Represented Litigants

May 28, 2020

VIA EMAIL attorneygeneral@ontario.ca

The Honourable Doug Downey
Attorney General of Ontario
Ministry of the Attorney General
McMurtry-Scott Building
720 Bay Street, 11th Floor
Toronto, Ontario
M7A 2S9

 

Attorney General Downey,

RE: Modernization of Ontario Courts and Self-Represented Litigants

We are the Self-Rep Navigators, an association of lawyers in Ontario who offer limited scope or unbundled services to self-represented litigants. We are responding to your invitation (Twitter April 30, 2020) to provide comments on the modernization of our courts.  We commend the Ministry’s recent efforts in that regard.

Adapting technology to increase efficiency in the court procedure is long overdue. It has taken a pandemic to make the legal community realize that online filing of court documents and virtual hearings can be implemented. Such methods save considerable time and money.[1] [2] We recommend that the government continue to widen the scope of materials that can be served and filed online, as well as adopt virtual hearings wherever possible.

More specifically, we would like to offer the following recommendations that are applicable to civil and family court procedure:

  • Change the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Family Law Rules and update technology to permit serving and filing electronically (email) and obtaining dates for hearings by email. 
  • Create a robust website portal where parties can log on and view the complete Court file.  This could potentially be a public-facing extension of the courts’ case management platforms, such as FRANK. This would facilitate online filing, and would allow the court and parties to verify when materials have been successfully filed. Submitting materials to the registrar in person should continue to be available for litigants who cannot file materials online, either due to disability, unfamiliarity, or lack of access.
  • Amend the Commissioners for Taking Affidavits Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C.17 to clarify that the virtual commissioning of affidavit is permissible.  This is important to self-reps who do not have a lawyer colleague in the office next door to swear their affidavits.
  • Eliminate To Be Spoken To and Assignment Court dates. These steps cause lawyers and self-reps to incur substantial travel time to and from court and significant wait time at the courthouse. Alternatively, scheduling should be done via email, web platform or video conferencing.
  • Should Court Call be the platform that the Ministry of the Attorney General continue to rely on to facilitate virtual hearings, consideration should be given to waiving the fees for litigants who have filing fee waivers, as well as for members of the general public who wish to observe the hearing. Court Call fees present a barrier to access to justice and undermines the open court principle that allows members of the public to attend court proceedings free of charge.
  • Restructure the way Trial Sittings are listed in some jurisdictions. Currently, matters are placed on a trial sittings list. Counsel and self-reps must prepare for trial and be forced to wait to see if the matter is called to trial. If the matter is adjourned on short notice, most preparation time is wasted. The matter is then pushed down to the next sittings, usually 4-6 months down the road. At that point, counsel and self-reps must prepare anew.
  • Create unified courts in all jurisdictions and assign case management judges on all matters, so that the same judge stays on the file. In some Courts, different Judges preside at different conferences, leading to inefficient use of court time and parties’ time, as parties may need to repeatedly present their cases and re-represent the issues. This is not helpful to narrowing of the issues or expediting resolution for parties.
  • Simplify court forms so that they are user-friendly.  Many self-reps struggle to use the forms and are disadvantaged as a result.
  • Ensure that Ministry of the Attorney General guides for litigants published on the government’s website are updated and refer to current legislation.

We also have a number of Family Court specific suggestions:

  1. Mandatory Information Programs (“MIP”) should be completed before application/answer being filed. The information may sway families to out of court methods of resolution to alternate dispute resolution.  
  • Establish more courts that has combined criminal and family jurisdiction, such as the Integrated Domestic Violence Court at 311 Jarvis St. in Toronto, as family matters on occasion have criminal issues tied to them. For example, to get a bail variance following an assault charge, currently, one must attend a different court (criminal court), not within family law proceedings.
  • Reduce the number of conferences. Expand powers of Judges in what can be ordered at conferences.

We look forward to working with the Ministry and the courts in improving the efficiency of our courts, leading to increased access to justice for all.  The Self-Rep Navigators are available for consultation by the Ministry and any legal system stakeholders regarding the impact of modernization, with a particular emphasis on self-represented litigants from the perspective of lawyers who serve self-represented litigants and have heard their struggles with the current procedures.

Respectfully submitted,

Elizabeth Mourao (Family Litigator, Ricketts Harris LLP)
Heather S. Douglas (Civil Litigator, Heather Douglas Law)
Tamar Friedman (Civil Litigator, TKF Law)
Mick Hassell (Co-founder of Self-Rep Navigators)
Heather Hui-Litwin (Co-founder of Self-Rep Navigators, former self-represented litigant)

On Behalf of The Self-Rep Navigators.


[1] Heather Douglas, “The Future of Our Courts: Online Courts”. Mar 20, 2020. Slaw. http://www.slaw.ca/2020/03/20/the-future-of-our-courts-online-courts/

[2] Barry Leon. “History Made in Ontario Courts: Virtual Proceedings on Youtube. The Lawyers Daily, April 30, 2020.

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