Yesterday, I attended the Opening of the Courts in what has become a welcome tradition. It is a convivial event, and a helpful opportunity to catch up with judges, lawyers, Law Society Staff, Ministry of the Attorney General officials and other assorted members of the justice community. Each year there is a recitation of the importance of public confidence in the judiciary and lamentations on the challenge of access to justice. And each year I wonder: Why do we do this?
While Courts once closed down during the summer, this is a relic of a more civilized past. While vacations still mean a somewhat slower pace and greater challenges in scheduling matters, the Courts are open year round, and a trial in September looks pretty much like a trial in August. Unlike academic years, it is not as if one group of lawyers or judges graduate one year or start the next. Vacancies are filled throughout the year and deciding to “open” the Courts in September is pretty much an arbitrary gesture.
The Opening of the Courts in Ontario involves both a Special Diving Interfaith Service which takes place at Church of the Holy Trinity (behind the Eaton Centre) in the morning and then the open Court session featuring the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal, the Chief Justice of the Superior Court for Ontario and the Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice.
The Interfaith Service is a curious and often uplifting event, filled with music, reflective remarks from clergy of various faiths and a reminder that seeking justice is itself a kind of leap of faith. The Court ceremony begins with addresses from each Chief Justice. Each Chief Justice reads a prepared text on the state of the Courts. Each year, there is an expression of pride in the achievements of the Court, especially in light of constrained resources. Each Chief Justice in different ways addressed the pressing access to justice concerns in family law proceedings. I was particularly interested in Chief Justice Smith’s suggestion that Ontario Law Schools consider developing family law clinical programs in the field of child protection. I have already heard significant interest in exploring this possibility at Osgoode. While each Chief Justice cited ongoing challenges, the general theme was one of pride and commitment to better serving the public. After the Chiefs have concluded these reports, greetings were offered from the Lieutenant Governor, the Treasurer of the Law Society, the Attorney General and from the federal Minister of Justice. The best moments, as always, are the unscripted ones – such as the widespread respect and affection expressed for retiring Associate Chief Justice Dennis O’Connor of the Court of Appeal and retiring Associate Chief Justice Douglas Cunningham of the Superior Court for Ontario. Finally, there was a presentation of the Advocates Society Catzman Award for Civility and Professionalism (this year’s deserving recipient is Blakes employment lawyer Connie Reeves).
The Osgoode students who attended the Interfaith Service found the experience both meaningful and affirming, while the students who accompanied me to the Opening clearly enjoyed the opportunity to share in the festivities and see so many legal luminaries in one place at one time. I should add that, in my experience, when you come to the Opening of the Courts, you will always learn at least one thing you never knew before. In my case, yesterday, I learned Ontario has a motto. Mottos are important. One of the best, the Coroner of Ontario, has a killer motto: “We speak for the dead to protect the living” – I am of course partial to Osgoode’s motto: “Per Jus Ad Justitiam”, or in the vernacular, “Through Law to Justice.” Ontario, by contrast, I learned through the remarks of Lieutenant Governor David Only, has a remarkably outmoded motto: “Ut incepit Fidelis sic permanent” or “Loyal she began, loyal she remains.” Loyalty? Still? Perhaps it is time for Ontario to go rogue and introduce a motto more reflective of our diverse and vibrant present and future rather than just our steadfast United Empire Loyalist roots.
In his remarks, the Law Society Treasurer, Tom Conway noted the importance of the Opening lies in allowing those who take part to take time out of our “hurly burly” lives to reflect on the accomplishments and aspirations of our courts. I think he is exactly right. In light of that important goal, it is a shame that more representatives of the public cannot be on hand to share in such reflections – perhaps in the future the proceedings could be webcast to reach a broader audience and the presentations could include fewer statistics (we can all read the annual report!) and more stories of how the justice system, and those who serve in that system, touch the lives of so many in such profound ways. Come what may, I am already looking forward to next year’s Opening of the Courts.