TORONTO - There is a large appetite for the review and reform of Ontario's family courts, Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler said Tuesday.

Currently, there are only 17 "unified," or dedicated family courts scattered in various pockets of Ontario. None are located in Toronto.

"The time has arrived to implement a properly serviced unified family court system,"Winkler said a ceremony to mark the official opening of Ontario's courts for the year.

Winkler's comments were echoed Tuesday by the top judges in Ontario's lower courts.

Chief provincial court Justice Annemarie Bonkalo said judges are faced with handling a high volume of child protection, custody and support cases, and an increasing number of people who don't have a lawyer, meaning judges are forced to spend valuable court time giving basic advice and help.

"... like Chief Justice Winkler, I worry that our courts might not always be able to meet the challenge," said Bonkalo, adding that she supports Winkler's call for a family law review.

"Coming to a just decision is much, much harder when litigants are on their own in court."

Across Ontario, the need for strengthening the province's family law system is at "the tip of everyone's tongue," Attorney General Chris Bentley said after Tuesday's speeches.

The province last month pledged to review the handling of child custody cases following the death of seven-year-old Katelynn Sampson of Toronto, who was permitted to stay in the care of a woman who had a criminal record for drugs, prostitution and violence. The girl's caregiver, Donna Irving, is charged with second-degree murder.

But Bentley blamed some of the challenges caused by delays in the system to a long-standing shortage of federal court judges, adding that it's up to the federal government to make a unified system.

"We have supported the call for an increasingly unified court, but it's not within my control," he said.

Some of the pressure from the judges' shortage will be relieved, said Bentley, with the recent hiring of eight new federal judges.

A report last spring from the Ontario Bar Association found that the province's legal system has reached a "breaking point." There is an acute shortage of judges and many people are finding the system too complicated and expensive since they can't get help they need through an underfunded Legal Aid program, it said.