09/19/2014 01:02 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:01 EDT

$4.5M sunk into failed court modernization project in Ontario

TORONTO - The Ontario government admits that $4.5 million was lost due to its decision to scrap a failed project aimed at modernizing the province's antiquated court records system.

The Court Information Management System had been in the works since 2009, but after delayed roll-outs and $10.3 million spent, the province decided last fall to abandon it. Only about $5.8 million worth of the software, hardware and other assets from the system are being reused, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General.

"That's what happens," said Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur.

"It does happen when we're trying to innovate with the technology. It was good that they were able to use at least half of it in the new systems that they have either launched or that they are working on."

That's not a satisfactory answer, said the NDP's attorney general critic Jagmeet Singh. The government should give a full accounting of where the money went, he said.

"We need to know what became of that," he said. "How was it used? Why didn't it work?"

The Court Information Management System was supposed to enable online court services, including scheduling, and consolidate the ministry's three case tracking systems. But the approach turned out to be too grand and the government realized it had bitten off more than it could chew, said Meilleur.

"We had initiatives in the past, I think, that we were trying to do too much at once," she said. "(Now) we are looking at initiatives that can move quickly."

The government is reverting to tweaking existing systems and trying to modernize one step at a time.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Attorney General said the government has revised its approach to large-scale modernization initiatives.

"The ministry is in the process of identifying the areas that require change, and developing a detailed and strategic modernization plan. We are also moving forward with modernization projects that are incremental, targeted and meet the expectations of court users and the public," Heather Visser said in a statement.

Incremental projects the government highlighted include: putting next-day court dockets online, expanding the use of video conferencing, including an agreement with K-Net in northern Ontario, an e-filing pilot project in small claims court and an online service for parents to set up or change child support payments.

The Progressive Conservatives' attorney general critic said every improvement is a positive step, but she wondered if an incremental process will mean the same level of service is not available in every jurisdiction.

"The new (Ontario) chief justice, George Strathy, he talks about the importance of making timely access one of his goals," said Sylvia Jones. "So how do you do that when you're doing a piecemeal approach?"

Strathy spoke at this month's opening of the courts ceremony about a system that has become inaccessible to many of the people it's meant to serve.

"Having been a lawyer and a judge in this province for over 40 years, it strikes me that we have built a legal system that has become increasingly burdened by its own procedures, reaching a point that we have begun to impede the very justice we are striving to protect," he said.

An incremental approach to modernization probably makes sense, said Colin Stevenson, the founding chairman of the Ontario Bar Association's justice technology committee. But he's less certain that the move to a paperless system will happen any time soon.

"Oh, I think that goes under the heading of when hell freezes over," he said.

"Having said that, I'm confident that the ministry has good people over there who will get this worked out sooner rather than later. It's just inconceivable in this day and age that it could be allowed to linger for years."

Stevenson, a civil litigation lawyer, said he concedes the task will not be an easy one, but he would like to know why the steps are not happening more quickly. At the top of his wish list is: online scheduling, online document filing and a searchable court list easily accessible on smartphones.

"It really is a bit antediluvian that we are still shuffling all this paper around at considerable expense to the clients," he said.