Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Battling court gridlock with tech tools

A committee of the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice recently published a series of reports that advocate, among other solutions, an increased role for technology in promoting access to justice in civil and family matters.

Lawyer Garry Wise of Toronto’s Wise Law Office has been hearing talk about improving access to justice since he started practising in 1986. He bluntly stated his views in a May 30 post on his Wise Law Blog: “The systematic failure to achieve digital court reform continues to be a direct cause of unnecessary litigation delays, lost and misplaced documents at courthouses and intolerable environmental waste. It makes the lives of lawyers, litigants, judges and all ‘stakeholders’…more difficult and stressful. And it continues to cost our clients money they can’t afford.”

Dominic Jaar, KPMG’s Montréal-based national leader for information management and e-discovery and former CEO of the Canadian Centre for Court Technology, wants courts to approach their services like a business. He decries the practice of well-paid people doing clerical work that technology handles elsewhere in society. “You could free up those people to do customer service, more value-added work,” he says.

Wise also wants to free up a lawyer’s time on routine motions and appearances using “scheduled, time-slotted hearings by videoconference, conducted from the comfort of your own office,” he wrote on tips.slaw.ca.

“Lawyers can stay in their offices. Judges call when the court is ready,” he explained in an interview. “You don’t waste time in court waiting for your case to be called. You can do other meaningful work. You don’t have to bill clients for hours of waiting time.”

Few people oppose initiatives like these. So why haven’t they seen the light of day?

Despite the severity of the problem, Wise figures the issue doesn’t carry the same weight among politicians that criminal law does. “It’s difficult to engage the public in the same way in family law,” he says. “As a consequence, legislators don’t give it priority.”

Markham, Ont.-based lawyer Russell Alexander attends Oshawa Superior Court, which he calls one of the newest and most modern courthouses in the province. But “only two courtrooms have the Internet connection needed for a Skype testimony or a Skype hearing,” he says, adding the court does not offer building-wide Wi-Fi.

Lawyers who want to sidestep such challenges using cellular-enabled devices find themselves thwarted by the building’s design. Hallways wrap around the perimeter and the courts are further inside, so Alexander has to step outside of court to get a cellphone signal.

Legitimate security concerns also hamper technology adoption. For instance, Wise wouldn’t mind filing documents via e-mail. He admits that it isn’t the most secure way to get documents to court, but neither is paper.

Jaar suspects that high-profile “failures” like Ontario’s eHealth system make justice system decision-makers gun-shy. He also blames the “governmental” way in which court technology projects take shape. The process of getting an RFP comes with a big up-front cost, so bureaucrats are tempted to overload RFPs with projects instead of taking an incremental approach to improve the odds of success.

Among a group of entrepreneurs trying to make up for the justice system’s technology shortcomings, Toronto lawyer Omar Ha-Redeye is general manager of My Support Calculator, which offers a free spousal support calculation. “Before this website was launched, there was no way for the public to do this,” Ha-Redeye says. “The spousal support advisory guidelines are so complex that there’s no way a self-represented litigant could get it calculated.” My Support Calculator earns revenues from lawyers who advertise on the site, using it as a lead-generation tool.

Jaar wants to unload another long-held assumption: that you need to be a mechanic to drive a car. “It’s possible to apply the law without understanding it,” he says, noting the existence of “decision trees” that help people interact effectively with systems they don’t fully grasp.

The rules of civil procedure could be the foundation of a website that routes people when they answer questions. For instance, entering the value of a case can cause a decision tree to direct people to the appropriate court.

Wise wants to issue a call to arms. “We need to make our voices heard,” he says (to fellow lawyers). “We need to be seen as working with the public to create a better system.”

“When you go to court, complain that they don’t take electronic documents,” Jaar exhorts. “Complain about all these things so that we build pressure around the system and ministers and clerks and courts know there’s demand for these technologies.”

Originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. To view a PDF of this article, click here.

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