In most cases, real-life court proceedings are far from the spectacles you see every night on TV. They’re slow, measured, and fairly soft-spoken. Lawyers and paralegals do most of the talking, and since everyone in town knows each other, they tend to maintain a pretty high level of decorum.
Of course, there are exceptions. Traffic Court is one of them.
There, you’ll find ordinary men and women standing their ground, defending themselves from charges like speeding and parking infractions. You’ll watch a practiced Justice of the Peace plow through dozens of cases a day. You’ll see lawyers and paralegals cutting deals with the Crown to resolve cases expediently. Occasionally, you’ll get a longer trial based on complex legal issues, but for the most part, it’s the people’s court.
Not everyone sees this as a good thing.
Ontario’s court system, like all Canadian courts, faces a heavy backlog of cases. That weighs heavily on taxpayers, not to mention the people left waiting for months on end to have their day in court. Hiring more judges and justice may provide temporary relief, but it doesn’t solve the inefficiencies that created this problem in the first place. Eliminating court backlog and increasing access to justice will take new ideas and radical changes.
One radical change that has been proposed has been to take certain provincial offences (like minor Highway Traffic Act offenses) out of the court system and replace them with administrative monetary penalties.
Administrative Monetary Penalties
People often talk about Canada as three levels of government: the federal government based in Ottawa, the provincial and territorial governments, and the municipal or local governments within each province. Truth is, municipalities don’t have much inherent power. They’re more like an extension or a downloading of the provincial government’s power.
In Ontario, it’s the Municipal Act, 2001 that delegates powers to local governments. It grants municipalities to pass by-laws and sets out their responsibilities in terms of transportation, waste management, public utilities, cultural and recreational spaces, and parking, among other things.
Section 434.1 of the Act lets municipalities establish a system of administrative monetary penalties to help it enforce its by-laws. Some municipalities already use these penalties to resolve by-law issues, like parking infractions.
For example, parking illegally in Markham will net you an administrative penalty rather than a parking ticket. Unlike a parking ticket, you can’t dispute this penalty in court — instead, you must request a Screening Review appointment with the city. If the Screening Officer doesn’t let you off, you can appeal to another municipal officer for a second review. But that’s where your right to appeal ends. There’s no court date, no justice to hear your case.
To some, this system is an improvement on the current state of affairs. Administrative penalties are seen as a more efficient way for municipalities to resolve these cases. After all, who really needs to go to court over a ticket?
When people picture backlog in the provincial courts, they often think of the irresponsible speeder who refuses to admit his wrongdoing, or the inconsiderate driver who parked in a loading zone. They don’t think of the trucker who risks losing his livelihood, the novice who was confused by a poorly-placed street sign, or responsible driver who had a tough break on a patch of black ice.
Depriving people of the right to a court hearing, even for minor offences, is not a solution to court backlog. The whole problem with the backlog is access to justice —both for the accused people stuck in limbo for months before their hearings, and the victims who see an accused go free due to unconstitutional delay.
Taking access to justice away from one group in an attempt to restore it for others is no justice at all.