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‘Slow and steady’ the right approach to modernizing Ontario's courts

2017-12-04

Jonathan Miller Head Shot

TORONTO — Ontario's antiquated court system will inch toward the modern age, as the attorney general announced Wi-Fi for courthouses, jury summons via email or text and some online divorce filings.

The system remains largely a paper-based one, which has not thus far reacted quickly to adopt new — or even not-so-new — technologies, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said Wednesday.

“Our system is still very much a bricks and mortar system,'' he said. “The most advancement we've seen is we've moved from typewriters to desktops or paper filings to faxes. That's where we're starting.''

The measures announced Wednesday won't see Ontario's courts catch up with how technology is used in every other realm of life, but they are foundational, practical steps, Naqvi said.

“I'm not claiming that Wi-Fi in all our courts by 2019 is getting us in the modern age,'' he said.

The measures being announced include more digital options for the jury process by the fall of 2019. A public consultation is underway, exploring possibilities such as completing jury questionnaires online, and receiving jury summonses by email or text.

Starting in April, couples going through a joint divorce will be able to file applications online, which the government says will make the process easier for people during a stressful time.

The province has also recently set up an online service for people to update their child support agreements, helping them avoid trips to the courthouse and money on legal fees.

Access to justice is a particularly important issue in family law, where more than half of people are not represented by a lawyer, Naqvi said.

“That is challenging,'' he said. “It creates barriers and obstacles for them and it also slows down the system because they may not have all the right information available to them to access the system. We feel very strongly that technology can help in that better access.''

Ontario will also be developing what it calls a “state-of-the-art'' digital service for a pilot project in the spring that would give the judge, lawyers and parties in a case access to all of the documents in one place online.

“So instead of each party bringing their own boxes of the exact same information to court for a hearing, everyone will have a single, secure, quick point of access for all court documents,'' the government plan says. “It will enable people to edit and interact with documents, and store them for future use, reducing the need for millions of paper documents and unnecessary trips to the courthouse.''

In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto civil and commercial litigator Jonathan Miller says he’s encouraged to see the government taking modernization seriously.

“The progress that is most interesting to me is the development of the ‘state-of-the-art’ digital service,” says Miller, an associate with the Toronto office of Shibley Righton LLP.

“I'm curious to see what it will look like and what impact it will have on eliminating or reducing paper filings. For example, will everything move toward electronic filing rather than just pleadings?”

Miller says there will likely be bumps in the road as the government rolls out the plan, “but in theory, it sounds promising.”

While it’s important to “move beyond the era of the antiquated fax machine,” he says the government’s proposed modernization must be accompanied by changes to the rules.

“For example, documents can be served by fax without consent, but — with some exceptions — documents cannot be served by email unless the party consents to it,” he explains.

“The proposed changes should make filing and accessing court documents easier,” says Miller, “but without equivalent changes to the rules, the efficacy of the proposed system may be limited.”

He says internet access in the courtroom is also long overdue.

“Having participated in an electronic trial, the lack of internet access was apparent. When a witness testified via Skype, internet access was routed through counsel's cellphone. The witness's examination was brief, so this was feasible, but for a longer examination, using a cellphone to gain internet access is not viable. Similarly, cellphone-based internet access may not be possible in more remote locations or in older courthouses where reception is lost,” says Miller.

“Overall, the changes appear positive,” he says. “The system will not be modernized overnight but the government has the right idea: slow and steady.”

It's not the first time the Liberal government will have attempted such projects. Its large-scale Court Information Management System project failed in 2013 to get off the ground after four years of work. The province lost $4.5 million when it decided to scrap the system that was supposed to enable online court services, including scheduling, and consolidate the ministry's three case tracking systems.

A step-by-step approach has a better chance of success, Naqvi said.

“By doing it this way we're actually getting it done as opposed to just talking about it or trying to develop this massive system which may or may not work,'' he said.

To move the civil courts into the digital age, Ontario allowed small claims to be filed online in 2015, then it launched a pilot project at six courthouses to allow all civil claims to be filed online. Just days ago, that expanded provincewide and starting in May, people will be able to file other documents in civil cases, such as statements of defence, online.

Other parts of the plan include having inmates appear by video at more pre-trial appearances to save transportation costs and time, building an online dispute resolution platform for landlord and tenant conflicts, and a previously announced step to allow the resolution of traffic tickets online.

 

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2017-12-04