06/04/2013 02:37 EDT | Updated 08/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Justices of the Peace Deserve Better

The busiest judges in Ontario are the least appreciated.

About 54 per cent of cases in Ontario -- around 300,000 in the last year for which figures are available -- are criminal cases heard by the Ontario Court of Justice. All of them are dealt with, at least in part, by a little over 300 Justices of the Peace. Additionally, Justices of the Peace preside over and conduct trials in provincial offences matters, such as those under the Highway Traffic Act, and municipal bylaw infractions, such as those under the Liquor Licence Act.

Justices of the Peace preside over virtually all bail hearings in the province and the majority of criminal remand courts. They also preside over other criminal hearings. They receive informations (the document which commences a criminal proceeding), confirm or consider the issuance of process by either a summons or a warrant and are responsible for receiving and considering the denial or issuance of search warrants and other matters of criminal process.

Justices of the peace exercise jurisdiction over the majority of provincial regulatory offences and municipal by-law prosecutions. As in criminal proceedings, justices of the peace receive informations and warrant applications, consider the issuance of process and preside at hearings and trials.

The Judge most Ontarians are likely to see when they go to Court is a Justice of the Peace.

Now, technically, a Justice of the Peace is a judicial officer, and not a judge. But the role of a Justice of the Peace is very judge-like. Issuance of search warrants, granting, or denial, of bail, full blown trials over environmental issues or automobile accidents involving death are all dealt with by Justices of the Peace. Justices of the Peace decide on the liberty of people charged with crimes.

And as anyone who has been to Bylaw Court knows, the lists in Justice of the Peace Court can be brutal; days where literally hundreds of matters are considered are far from unusual.

Becoming a Justice of the Peace is not an easy process. A University Degree (or equivalent) and a minimum of 10 years work experience is required. In practice virtually all Justices of the Peace are experienced professionals who give up their (often legal related) careers to enter public service. An extensive training process follows making Justices of the Peace fully trained to judge cases in Ontario.

Yet Justices of the Peace are paid less than half what Ontario Judges are paid and their conditions of work more closely resemble that of office workers than judges. Justices of the Peace commonly have shared offices, limited library facilities and minimal expense allowances for additional legal training. Secretarial assistance is totally absent.

Despite these limitations Justices of the Peace in Ontario soldier on and deal with their cases, ensuring justice is delivered. But the truth is they deserve better.