Much of the technology that could modernize our court system is readily available today, and waiting for adoption by the courts. It’s a move that could pay benefits for both the court system and the public it serves.
It’s about time we brought Ontario’s civil justice system into the 21st century. Government-sponsored attempts to modernized our courts go back as far as the late 1990s, when the world-wide web was still in its infancy, yet here we are in 2016 and “Ontario’s courts remain stuck in a world of fax machines, towering heaps of paper, and personal attendances for even routine court requests,” according to David Sterns, president of the Ontario Bar Association.1
A history of fits and starts
It’s been twenty years since the first major modernization project was launched and after much time, effort and money, we have little more than incremental improvements to show for it. In 2002, the Integrated Justice Project was cancelled, following six years of cost overruns, delays, and disagreements, without its promised case management system.2 Likewise, in 2013 the Court Information Management System (CIMS), which would have enabled online court services, and the consolidation of three case tracking systems, was scrapped after four years at a loss of $4.5 million.3
These highly-visible false starts aside, Ontario has made piecemeal improvements in the court system, including online next-day court dockets, video conferencing in the courtroom, an online tool for filing family and small claims forms, and digital court recording in almost 1,000 courtrooms and hearing rooms.2
Still, technology in the court system is in urgent need of reform, if the courts are to responsibly serve their constituents and maintain the public’s trust in the justice system. The longer we wait, the longer Ontario’s outdated infrastructure will lead to costs and delays to litigants and unnecessary costs to the taxpayer.
Is the problem really that bad?
Civil lawsuits provide just one example of the problem faced by litigants. As Sterns sums it up: “In 2016, to start a civil lawsuit, someone must physically go to the court office and wait in line to have the initial documents stamped. Once stamped, the documents must be physically handed to the defendant by a document server. Once the document is served, an affidavit of service must be signed. All of these steps could easily be replaced by a system of electronic filing and service.”
So, what can be done?
At the end of 2012, former attorney general Charles Harnick was asked about the slow pace of reform, and suggested the need for “a champion within the government to move the issue forward”.2 We may now have that champion in the new attorney general, Yasir Naqvi, who has pledged to make the system “more effective and user friendly” and to “introduce more technological solutions”.3
Fortunately, many of the technologies that could produce meaningful improvements to the court system are readily available and widely used, and don’t require the “big bang”-style projects that have often led to failure. Incremental solutions can get us closer to a modernized court system, and with less risk. For example, “other jurisdictions — such as Canadian and U.S. federal courts — have used electronic filing and document management for years to enhance access to justice and save time and money,” said Sterns.
Perhaps it’s time for government to seriously partner with private industry and universities to build on the technology that already exists. Electronic document assembly, for example, has been available for years, and has proven to save time and reduce errors, and its adoption by many of the leading law firms across Canada has already paved the way for electronic document filing.
As technologies like this, and others, continue to evolve ever more quickly, more long studies and multi-year implementations will only result in solutions that are out-of-date on the day they’re implemented. Let’s modernize our courts now, and deliver the level of service the public has come to expect in virtually every other sector of the economy.
1 Sterns, David. Time to modernize our courts. The Star.com. December 12, 2016.
2 Kauth, Glenn. Ontario lagging in court technology. Law Times. Dec 31, 2012.
3 Jones, Alison. Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi aims to modernize the justice system. The Canadian Press. Aug 28, 2016.