Justice system in crisis mode: experts

By Patrick Mangion, York Region Newspaper Group Feb 17, 07

York Region's justice system is in crisis mode; a system virtually ignored, grossly underfunded and understaffed, experts at a discussion forum said Friday.

Victims of the broken system took turns telling their stories during an Ontario Bar Association provincewide town hall initiative Friday.

For example, two years ago, Richmond Hill resident Rehana Sumar's sister put the wheels in motion to turn over a new chapter in her life, she said.

Ms Sumar said her sister hired a lawyer and expected a speedy conclusion to her divorce and child custody proceedings.

Instead, she has been left to languish in a justice system hopelessly awash in bureaucracy, she said.

"We're financially and emotionally exhausted. We've lost hope," Ms Sumar said.

She and her sister have been to court 11 times, only to have their case cancelled or adjourned, Ms Sumar said.

Her sister, who now lives with her, has spent nearly $200,000 in legal fees to date, she said.

While her sister didn't want to speak, similar stories to hers were told numerous times, pointing to a justice system that is overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle a growing mountain of cases.

From family court cases to traffic tickets, more than 80 people, including victims, legal experts and police, packed a conference room at the Best Western hotel to shine a light on the problem and table some solutions.

There is no magic bullet, but awareness is a start, said Mr. Klees, who, along with MPP Julia Munro, co-sponsored the discussion.

"Very seldom do we hear about the justice system," he told the audience.

Issues of overwhelmed judges, frustrated citizens and insufficient sentences have been overshadowed by politicking on health care and education, Mr. Klees added.

That dysfunction is felt particularly hard in York Region's family court, said George van Hoogenhuize, chairperson of the family law committee.

"It's a numbers issue here," he said.

York's burgeoning population has resulted in an avalanche of cases in family court, placing unbearable and unattainable demands on judges.

Nine additional judges need to be hired immediately to bring relief, Mr. van Hoogenhuize said.

There are 37 judges in the Central East region that includes York Region. Compare that to the 100 in Toronto, an area with a similar population.

It has reached a crisis level, Mr. van Hoogenhuize said.

"(York's family court) is so overwhelmed that it is not able to meet the demands placed on it, leading to the creation of a vicious cycle," he said.

The implications are far-reaching and have adverse effects on families for many years, he added.

It is something Armondo Milany knows all to well as he talks about a custody battle for his son, which elicited the only spontaneous applause of the two-hour meeting.

A parent need only encounter the injustice of our system to understand it is a form of abuse, Mr. Milany said.

His son slipped from an A student to failing grades in the four years the case has been before York's family courts, he said.

He chastised the courts for preventing him from even knowing where his son is living, before being cut by a meeting organizer.

But family court wasn't the only area criticized.

The Region of York operates two court facilities for provincial offences, such as traffic tickets with 15 justices of the peace.

But the courts are woefully understaffed, senior prosecutor Hans Saamen said.

At least 20 JPs are needed to handle the number of caseloads that have skyrocketed over the past four years, Mr. Saamen said.

In 2002, 97,236 charges were filed in York, compared to nearly 142,000 last year.

Similarly, about 17,000 trials were requested for provincial offences tickets, compared to about 40,000 in 2006.

It amounts to a massive waste of resources and revenue loss, Mr. Saamen added.

But the human toll remains the most pressing concern for Ms Sumar and her sister.

"We have to ease the caseload on our judges so they can deliver justice to Canadians," she said.

"The justice system has seriously failed my sister and it's failing Canadians every day."

Information and solutions gathered at the meeting will be tabled by Conservative MPPs at the legislature early next month.


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