11/24/2013 10:37 EST | Updated 01/24/2014 05:59 EST

Ontario's retiring top judge reflects on a career of helping people get justice

TORONTO - There's no doubt that as the province's top judge, Warren Winkler is a Goliath, but as he reflects on a long, successful career, he keeps coming back to the Davids.

A few weeks ahead of his retirement as Chief Justice of Ontario, Warren Winkler frequently steers a conversation about his legacy toward how the system can help ordinary people find justice.

He cites the person fired from a large corporation, facing a tough legal battle against a company with deep pockets, a couple going to family court over unequal access to their children and the person trying to get money back from a contractor whose work wasn't done right.

Power imbalances are a theme in Winkler's approach to access to justice — one of the key issues he sought to improve during his six-year tenure at the helm of Ontario's Appeal Court.

Prior to his appointment as the province's top judge, Winkler spent 14 years as a trial judge in Ontario Superior Court, where he says he became "hugely aware" of access to justice issues at a time when they weren't as widely discussed. Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has also taken up the cause and these days legal organizations are holding access to justice conferences and churning out reports on it.

"For the first two or three years I was pounding away on the drums of access to justice I was a voice in the wilderness," Winkler says. "Nobody else was talking about it."

As his 75th birthday and mandatory retirement approaches on Dec. 10, the man from Pincher Creek, Alta., who rose to become Ontario's top judge says he lay awake one recent night thinking about what the future will hold. He came to the conclusion, in those wee hours, that life is about paying back.

"I've been pretty lucky, everything's worked out well for me, so I think this is a time to celebrate my family," Winkler says. "I think what I'll say to them is, 'What we have to do is try to make the world a better place for people to live in and that's the bottom line.'"

Known for his skills in mediation and in class-action lawsuits, Winkler has presided over some of the largest class actions in the country, such as those relating to the Walkerton tainted water scandal, residential schools and Hepatitis C.

Winkler's work on those cases allowed thousands of Canadians to achieve justice in a way the regular system couldn't have done, says fellow Appeal Court Justice Stephen Goudge.

"If you're an ordinary victim of Hepatitis C and all you've got is the traditional justice system with as little as you know about it, how the heck are you ever going to have a scheme that lets you, as you get progressively sicker, get the help that you need?" Goudge says.

"He's encouraged the justice system to get creative about the way it uses its processes so we can think harder and better about delivering individual justice to individual people."

One of the main barriers for people trying to use the justice system, Winkler says, is that it's just too complicated.

"I think we need to make the system simpler, cheaper and faster and it's got to work better," he says. "I'm a great believer in simpling things down so people can understand (the rules) and get through them quicker, and if you do that the cost isn't so great."

For Winkler, access to justice doesn't only mean access for those actively embroiled in court cases, but it also involves unveiling some of the mystery that surrounds the courts. Since he was appointed to the top job, Winkler has instituted annual reports, going on outreach trips to law schools and communities outside the big centres and making the annual opening of the courts ceremonies more public.

Winkler was also at the helm of the Appeal Court when it ran a pilot project in 2007 with cameras in the court. A report deemed it an overwhelming success and recommended expanding camera use to all Ontario courts. But the report was shelved and there has been no movement since.

Winkler says the Appeal Court is open to having cameras again "any time," but frankly, he says, they're not the kinds of cases people necessarily want to watch.

"In an appellate court there are no witnesses, it's mainly legal argument and I just don't think it's that interesting," Winkler says.

Winkler's time at the Appeal Court also coincided with the explosion of social media, something not all judges have actively embraced in their courtrooms.

"When it first started it was a bit disconcerting because we didn't know really what it meant," he says. "We've had a lot of educational programs dealing with social media. My own personal view? I'm not concerned, I'm not afraid of it."

After 48 years in the justice system, Winkler hopes to be able to spend more time with his family, including two daughters, three grandchildren and a black lab named JoJo.

He used to have two other black labs, Gretzky and Maggie, and before the interview begins he gazes up at a framed newspaper photograph of him with the late dogs at his farm in Markdale, Ont. Perhaps he'll breed black labs in his retirement, Winkler says.

He will also be working with the Winkler Institute in Dispute Resolution, recently established in his honour, and expects he'll be called on to "help with a few things." Retired judges are often tapped to run commissions, public inquiries and the like.

Goudge says Winkler is not one to actually retire.

"If you say to me: 'Is he going to miss this court and miss the role he's been able to play as chief justice?'" Goudge says. "I think the answer is he'll miss it enormously, but he has a great path forward...He's still got tons of energy."