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Access to justice, new courthouse among top issues for TLA

Access to justice and a multitude of issues around Toronto’s planned centralized criminal courthouse are among those topics engaging the Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA) as its new president Melanie Manchee takes the helm.

“It’s a huge concern that the construction of the Toronto courthouse is not going to result in a structure that will serve Torontonians well,” says Manchee, who has begun her one-year term as president of the 130-year-old TLA.

The downtown facility on Centre Avenue, across from the existing courthouse at 361 University Ave. will amalgamate several provincial criminal courthouses scattered around the city.

Work on the site has begun, displacing a large surface parking lot that was heavily used by people attending nearby courthouses. The loss of this space has worsened an already difficult parking challenge, Manchee says. 

The Ministry of the Attorney General has no plans to include public parking with the new courthouse, due, in part, to zoning bylaw limitations, she adds.

“I find it hard to understand that. This is a facility built by the public and for the public,” she says. “Why can’t we change the zoning?" 

Defendants and their families who typically attend courthouses relatively close to home will have to come downtown when the new building opens, Manchee says. 

“We will have people coming for their court appearance, which is sometimes just a quick adjournment, and there’s no parking,” she says. “We think it’s going to be a big challenge for Torontonians.”

Another issue is that many bail hearings will be held at an existing courthouse at 2201 Finch Ave. W. at Dufferin Street, which is a 40-minute drive away from the new courthouse, but there will be no opportunity to conduct any other kind of judicial hearing there, including a guilty plea.  

"Under the proposed system, accused persons held for bail hearings may not have access to the specialized courts such as the Gladue Court and the Mental Health Court, and the specialized services that go with them," Manchee says. "The location of the bail centre will also pose difficulties for marginalized accused who could be released without access to adequate public transit and shelters.”

The TLA also notes that although criminal youth court cases will be heard at the new facility, family court matters will not. These plans seem to disregard the use of “crossover judges” who now operate at the 311 Jarvis St. courthouse and whose expertise allows them to take a holistic approach to youth matters as they preside over both child-welfare and criminal issues, Manchee says. 

“In general, we feel some of our concerns have not been addressed by the ministry in a way that will support the needs of the people of Toronto,” she says. 

The association also points to the growing number of applicants for lawyers’ licences and the quality of their training.

The Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) has seen a steady increase in applicants for licences to practise law in Ontario, reaching about 2,400 a year, Manchee says. 

Applicants comprise three main groups, she notes: Canadian law school graduates; lawyers who have practised law abroad and want to work in this country; and Canadians who received their legal education in a foreign country.

“There is now what most of us would call a growing industry of schools in Australia and the United Kingdom that are welcoming Canadian candidates,” she says.

There is some question about the competence of these graduates, she says. According to LSUC figures, the failure rate of foreign-trained candidates writing Ontario licensing exams on their first try is 47 per cent, compared to only 13 per cent for Canadian-trained applicants, Manchee notes. 

At the same time, Ontario law schools are expanding, she adds, pointing out the University of Ottawa law faculty has almost doubled in size, Lakehead University has opened its Bora Laskin Faculty of Law and Ryerson University has proposed starting its own law school.  

More lawyers are being produced than are needed, she says. She points to a Prism Economics and Analysis study published by the Ontario government, which estimates that by 2025 there will be 1.6 new licensed lawyers for every available position.

“Torontonians as clients are going to be hugely affected if there are too many lawyers trying to make a living and there's not enough work, especially if they have different levels of competence,” she says. 

The third issue of importance to the TLA is a recommendation in a report by former Ontario court chief justice Annemarie Bonkalo that paralegals be trained to independently practise in certain areas of family law such as custody access, simple child support, restraining orders and simple divorces. 

The association agrees with several of Bonkalo’s proposals to improve family law delivery, including the unbundling of services, legal coaching for clients, and training court staff to better help the public, says Manchee, a Toronto family lawyer.

“But we do not support paralegals practising in family law. We think the risk is huge and that parties will not be properly served by a partially trained non-lawyer,” she adds.  

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