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Online court document system

OSCAR, meet JUSTIN: moving toward an online court document system

A March 16 Globe and Mail article headlined “Judge bashes Ontario’s archaic court document system” included the following statements made by Justice David Brown:

“Consign our paper-based document management system to the scrap heap of history and equip this Court with a modern, electronic document system. “Yes, Virginia, somewhere, someone must have created such a system, and perhaps some time, in an another decade or so, rumours 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.”


To be fair, Ontario has tried to implement electronic court document management systems. Several years ago, Court Services used OSCAR (Online System for Court Attendance Reservations), a system which offers document management features.

Then, in March, 2010, the Ministry announced that it would not expand OSCAR’s use and would build a similar system internally — the Court Information Management System (CIMS).

(Note: CourtCanada Ltd., which developed OSCAR, is currently suing the Ministry of the Attorney General for $14.5 million, alleging material misconduct on the Ministry’s part. That alleged misconduct includes inducing CourtCanada into signing an agreement under false pretences and materially misleading CourtCanada during the course of the contract.)

In an e-mail, Ministry spokesperson Brendan Crawley wrote that “a first release of CIMS is targeted for 2012. (This) release…will have electronic document management functionality, but will focus on court produced documents…electronic services for litigants, the public and the judiciary will come in future phases.”

Any discussion of what CIMS-based systems should offer commonly turns to British Columbia and initiatives like the Justice Information System (JUSTIN), “a central database for all criminal court information in B.C., with information entered and shared by justice partners — judiciary, court services, crown counsel, corrections and police,” explains Alanna Valentine, director of service transformation for B.C. Court Services. “CEIS, our civil tracking system, provided the infrastructure required for Court Services Online. Both CSO and CEIS were leveraged for civil e-search in 2004, e-filing for civil matters in 2005 and criminal/traffic e-search in 2008.

“In 2009 we further developed JUSTIN so court staff could produce criminal court documents such as warrants or bail orders electronically in JUSTIN.”

This ability appeals to David Outerbridge. “Many people I know show up in court with an extra copy of their materials because there’s a good chance the judge will not have received their material,” claims the chair of the e-Discovery Implementation Committee, a joint committee established by the Ontario Bar Association and The Advocates’ Society.

Patrick Cormier, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Court Technology, notes that a court document system requires at least three interrelated parts: “A document management (DM) system manages unstructured information and document files, a case management (CM) system manages structured information, and a records management (RM) system manages the life-cycle of information (i.e. defining records with retention periods and deletion instructions).”

JUSTIN-like electronic document filing would get documents into this system without hours of courthouse queuing.

“Lawyers could dump documents into the system for discovery purposes,” says Dominic Jaar, national leader in information management and e-discovery for KPMG. “Technologies like predictive coding would enable all parties to have the same discovery rules applied to data sets of all parties without massive investment by the parties.”

Once filed with the court, documents (or notices of submission) could automatically be made available to organizations tangentially related to the court system, like police services or family and child agencies.

Information security is a straightforward matter, according to Gregory Azeff, president of CourtCanada Ltd. (OSCAR’s developer). For instance, Azeff claims OSCAR offers credential-based security. “Court staff, for instance, could access sealed motions, but lawyers or members of the public would never know that those things were in the system,” he says.

Courts could charge nominal fees for document submission and downloads to fund systems in this time of both provincial and federal budgetary austerity, and filing costs would still decrease.

Donald Cameron, a partner with Bereskin & Parr, cites the U.S. federal court system Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) where attorneys download documents for free while other people pay 10 cents per page, up to a maximum of $2.40. “It could be a 50-page document or a 500-page document — it still costs $2.40 to download,” Cameron says.

Court document system developers could create application programming interfaces (APIs) that developers of other software systems could use. These other developers could then bring a court document system’s information into other software.

For example, lawyers could search court document systems from within their case management systems. Citizens could do the same from library websites or other portals.

Azeff included such APIs in OSCAR to “allow the Ministry to focus on doing its job,” he explains, and not get distracted by requests for making court documents more accessible.

For the foreseeable future, courts will still need to field hard-copy documents, scan them to a searchable electronic format, preserve the originals and produce hard copies on request. The court can price such services to cover costs associated with handling paper.

E-docs explained

Several organizations maintain websites that explain how their court document systems work.

  • PACER offers video tutorials showing how this U.S. electronic public access system works.
  • B.C.’s Court Services Online offers a “Getting Started” section that includes video tutorials (
  • Donald Cameron, in his capacity as a member of the Federal Court IP Users Committee, is looking at recommendations for improving the court document system in federal court. He created a wiki that links to what other organizations are doing in this sphere. “I’m trying to figure out a business case, how the federal court can make it happen,” he says. Contact Cameron at Bereskin & Parr if you’d like to check out his research.

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. For a PDF version, click online court document system.