It’s often noted that law has been slow to adopt modern technology. While businesses everywhere have been embracing tech on so many fronts, “legal tech” has faced the uphill battle of a profession that is rooted in precedent and traditions. Lawyers are too busy practicing law to worry about keeping up with the latest tech, goes the archaic line of thinking.
With the coronavirus pandemic forcing everyone to stay home, and work from home, avoiding modern tech is no longer an option. The virtual workplace has become reality. Even for the legal profession.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the courts. Ontario’s justice system has had a rude awakening during the Covid-19 lockdown. Jury trials are suspended indefinitely; in fact all on-site court operations have been closed down until the province has determined that they’re safe to resume.
Trial and Error
Court activities have now moved into the living rooms and computer screens of justices, lawyers and litigants, via videoconference and other electronic technologies. But the Ontario justice system’s ability to operate virtually has been a lot of… trial and error.
Court files that judges rely on are often hundreds of pages long. And with courts being so slow to the table of electronic filing, judges working remotely had little access to the documents.
How antiquated were the courts? Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found that in 2018-19, paper made up 96% of the documents filed in Ontario’s court system. That’s a lot of trees getting a life sentence to serve our justice system. And now, a lot of justices left in the dark.
With this paper-based model, Ontario’s courts have had a lot of catching up to do, and fast. Among the modernized changes the province has undertaken to help with the transition to remote operations:
- $1.3 Million in funding for technology
- 600 laptops leased
- Virtual private network and digital recording devices for all laptops
- E-Hearing Task Force on virtual court hearings established
“I like to say we’ve modernized the justice system 25 years in 25 days”, says Attorney General Doug Downey.
Zooming Into the Future
As per the new E-Hearings Task Force, any electronic platform used in a court hearing must be:
- Able to protect confidential information
- Able to handle several simultaneous uploads and downloads
- Open to the public
Going forward, after systems are able to return to some semblance of normalcy, it’s hoped that Ontario’s courts will see the virtues of modern technology, and continue to embrace it.
Instead of relying on fax machines and floppy disks, or expensive in-person judicial pretrials that can last mere minutes, new technology can vastly improve the system.
Virtual trials can be a valuable added tool to help reduce the massive case backlogs, and the growing delays in the court system.
Let’s hope that the modernizing of our courts is one silver lining to come out of this terrible pandemic.
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