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Canadian Court Technology Is 'Abysmal'

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In Canada, most courts are still stuck in the dark ages, buried in mountains of paper and only now beginning to wake up to the digital world.(Shutterstock) | Shutterstock

MONTREAL - Technology is transforming the legal landscape in many countries, cutting down on lawyers' fees, saving time for just about anyone who sets foot inside a courthouse and making justice more accessible.

But in Canada, most courts are still stuck in the dark ages, buried in mountains of paper and only now beginning to wake up to the digital world.

"The state of court technology is abysmal," said Ontario Superior Court Justice Fran Kiteley. "We're decades behind other sectors."

A fellow Superior Court judge, David Brown, caused a bit of a stir in the legal community with a recent decision bemoaning the lack of technology in courts.

"From the perspective of the members of the public who use this court, delays caused by our antiquated, wholly inadequate document management system impose unnecessary, but all too real, costs on them," he wrote.

"What if our court had an electronic case management system," Brown mused.

"Yes, Virginia, somewhere, someone must have created such a system, and perhaps sometime, in another decade or so, rumour of such a possibility may waft into the paper-strewn corridors of the court services division of the Ministry of the Attorney General and a slow awakening may occur."

A recent conference in Montreal by the Canadian Centre for Court Technology, a group Kiteley heads up, could perhaps be considered the "slow awakening" for which Brown hopes.

There are pockets of innovation from Canadian courts — British Columbia is widely touted as the leader — but for the most part the glimpses of how modern the courts could be come from south of the border.

A county in Texas started a project that made jury duty more convenient for residents, and the results were startling. People who received jury notices by mail could go online to fill out their questionnaires and select a time that they would be available to report for jury duty.

Only about 50 per cent of people who receive notices show up for jury duty in the U.S., and in some areas it can be as low as 10 per cent, said Jim McMillan, with the National Center for State Courts based in Williamsburg, Va.

Meanwhile, Travis County saw 90 per cent of people show up at their personally selected time, he said. The county also won an environmental award as it was estimated they saved 160,000 kilometres in car trips.

McMillan's proposal to electronically schedule some court appearances elicited oohs and excited nods at the conference. In certain levels of court dozens of cases are scheduled to be heard at 9 a.m. Then, as the judge or justice of the peace works their way down the list, it may take several hours — meaning several hours in lawyers' fees for some — before a case is briefly heard.

"We could do things like reserve times, things like, you know, we do with restaurants and almost everything else in our lives," he said. "We don't make everybody come to the restaurant at 6 p.m. and say, 'Well, you're 400th in line.'"

Instead, McMillan said, what if people checked in at a kiosk and were given a time of 11:20 a.m., for example? They could go run a few errands then return, he suggested.

As for the reams of paper each court case generates, it will, by all accounts, be a while before courts can go completely paperless. But the paperless projects that are being touted are generating interesting results.

In Manatee County in Florida, they set out to determine just how much money they could save if they switched entirely to electronic documents. They found that when court documents were filed electronically and then printed by court staff for use and storage — an intermediary stage at which most Canadian courts find themselves — it cost 57 cents per page.

But when documents were filed, used and stored electronically it cost 11 cents per page.

"We can now take these numbers, give them to our funders and say 'Look, we are running six and seven times more expensively than we could potentially," said McMillan.

In B.C., a recent appeal case was run entirely electronically, saving hundreds of thousands of pages that would have had to have been printed for the five sets of lawyers and the five judges, said Andrew Clark, the project manager for B.C.'s e-Court program. Done electronically, the size of all the appeal documents was 1.8 gigabytes.

The lawyers involved found that it saved them a lot of time and money, savings that they were then able to pass on to their clients.

"We're talking about...a huge reduction in, particularly, public money," he said. "It reduced the cost of litigation."

The only downside those involved in the e-appeal reported? One of the judges quipped that he would have to start going to the gym more often because he wasn't lugging around massive binders.

It's hard to argue with cost savings, but it costs money to implement court technology projects. Governments generally haven't shown great interest in investing in the justice system, instead directing spending to politically popular areas such as health, suggested Kiteley.

"Between more money for justice and more money for MRIs, MRIs win hands down," she said.

Public demand for more modern courts could be what pushes governments to fund new projects, said Ontario Superior Court Justice Larry Whalen.

"When you look at our lives, we're surrounded by technology...so I think government has a responsibility of investing in technology to facilitate justice," he said.

People who choose to represent themselves in court cases perhaps have the most to gain from technology in court, said Whalen.

Nova Scotia created a website, with federal funding, dedicated to helping people through family law proceedings. Forms to file emergency applications, contacts for community agencies, steps toward mediation and information on what happens when children are taken into care are all easily found on the homepage.

That province has also webcasted Appeal Court cases, which allows anyone who can get on the website to watch a full court case.

Online court access expands exponentially south of the border, particularly in the U.S. federal court system. For a fee, people can search for case filings, motions and decisions. There are currently one million users of the system, said McMillan, and last year the courts received $41 million in fees.

The caveat, depending on one's viewpoint, is that more than 90 per cent of that revenue comes from commercial data aggregators, McMillan said.

"These commercial entities are in our courts now anyway, collecting this information whether it comes from manual input or whatever," he said. "It doesn't bother me that if they're reselling and making nice profits off that that they shouldn't help us facilitate (electronic access)."

The idea clearly leaves Kiteley unsettled, though.

While credit bureaus already send people to sift through court files and take note of who has judgments in areas such as bankruptcy against them, it might not be good for everyone to provide easy online access, she said.

"Do we want to have data aggregators reviewing every single application for divorce?" she said. "Say Jane Smith and Bob Smith are getting divorced and here's their addresses and here's the names of their children and the schools their children are at and do we want a data aggregator to send to these now separated spouses online dating information?

"Do we allow that to happen even though that would give money back to the courts?"

The judges involved with the Canadian Centre for Court Technology say that not only does the government need to provide funding, but the judiciary needs to show some leadership on the issue if any progress can be expected.

Kiteley suggested what put B.C. ahead several years ago was a "triumvirate of leaders," in the deputy attorney general, the B.C. Supreme Court chief justice and the provincial court chief justice.

McMillan, who has worked on court technology projects all over the globe, said Singapore is probably the world leader. He named South Korea as a close second. As for Canada?

"It's not terrible," he said.

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