Ontario courts unravel under Doug Ford

By MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam

Ontario’s justice system is in freefall. Those accused of violent crimes are back on the streets and the Doug Ford gov­ernment is letting it happen.

Just ask Cait Alexander and Emily Agar, who recently joined me at Queen’s Park to demand that Premier Ford take responsibility and fix the crisis. Criminal cases in which they were victims of physical assault and rape were thrown out due to trial delays and court backlogs.

In July 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in R. v. Jordan (known as the Jor­dan Decision) that a maximum reasonable delay to trial is 18 months for provincial cases and 30 months for Superior Court cases.

Two work acquaintances were at Emily Agar’s home in 2022 when she went to bed. She awoke to the male acquaintance sexually assaulting her. She re­ported the crime to police, who investigated and charged her rapist. This is when her second nightmare began.

After several delays due to court staff shortages, the trial began in July 2023 with Agar facing cross-examination. The next available dates to resume were on November 8 and 9. But on November 2, she was informed that the trial would not proceed and the judge ruled that the accused’s right to a timely trial had been violated. Ms. Agar crumbled, as she will never get justice from Ontario’s broken court system.

Cait Alexander’s prolonged court experience traces the same patterns. In 2021, Alex­ander’s ex-boyfriend beat her nearly to death. A 20-year ca­reer police officer said it was one of the worst cases of domes­tic violence she had ever seen.

Alexander has PTSD, scars on her body and a head shape for­ever altered. She’s still seeing a therapist, Her trial was canceled twice due to courtroom and staff shortages, and eventually the le­gal clock ran out. The multiple charges against her abuser were stayed; today he walks free in his Leaside community despite nearly killing her.

Under the Ford government, underfunding and understaffing of Ontario’s courts has led to an unprecedented crisis, marked by staggering caseloads and pro­tracted delays in case disposi­tion. Ramifications of this crisis extend beyond mere administra­tive inefficiencies, permeating every facet of the justice system and profoundly affecting indi­viduals awaiting trial, victims, and society at large.

When the Supreme Court of Canada created a new frame­work under the Canadian Char­ter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure that trials would be held within a reasonable time, it was not the court’s responsibility to compensate for the Ontario gov­ernment’s mismanagement of the court system through chron­ic underfunding and under­staffing. The administration of justice – including court forms and procedures, court hours and court filing matters – is the full responsibility of the Ministry of the Attorney General .

Although there have always been case backlogs, we had not seen such a dire crisis until the election of 2018 when the Ford government took over the ad­ministration of justice. Cases are now routinely dropped because courtrooms are double-booked, or trials canceled the day they’re scheduled to proceed because of inadequate staffing. Ontario’s 2024 budget now going through a committee makes no mention of new funding to improve the under-resourced bail system or clear the record case backlogs in the civil and criminal courts or adjudicative tribunals.

Tribunals are less formal and officially a faster channel of specialized justice addressing matters such as landlord/tenant disputes. Yet, as pointed out by the independent, non-partisan watchdog Tribunal Watch and the Ombudsman accountabili­ty office, the tribunal system is facing its own serious crisis due to mismanagement, underper­formance and controversial ju­dicial appointments of Conserv­ative Party insiders with little to no background in the relevant fields of law. The Landlord and Tenant Board alone has 53,000 backlogged cases.

The ramifications of criminal charges being stayed or dis­missed are profound, particu­larly for serious offenses such as sexual assault, human traf­ficking, impaired driving and child sexual abuse. Recent ex­amples in Ontario illustrate the real-world impact of delayed justice and the release of dan­gerous offenders on victims, survivors, communities and the broader justice system.

The backlog crisis in On­tario’s courts – coupled with extraordinarily high rates of pretrial detention, gross defi­ciencies in bail supervision, and fallout from the Jordan decision – poses profound challenges to the administration of justice and public safety. Urgent action is needed to address systemic deficiencies, enhance court ef­ficiency, and restore public con­fidence. With comprehensive reforms including funding to ensure adequate staff levels and prioritizing the rights of victims and accused individuals alike, Ontario could navigate the backlog crisis, uphold the prin­ciples of justice, and safeguard the well-being of communities.

Premier Ford’s tough-on-crime rhetoric amounts to little when serious criminal cases can’t get to trial. Things will only worsen until he musters the political will and funding to fix our courts. Victims and survivors will be let down, and accused people will forever car­ry the shame of the crime they are accused of without their day in court. A long-held legal max­im, “Justice delayed is justice denied,” rings louder today in Ontario than ever.

Kristyn Wong-Tam is MPP for To­ronto Centre and the Official Op­position critic for the Ministry of the Attorney General.