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Ian Harvey

Inside Queen's Park: Dreams of digital justice process still elusive

The process of justice of justice never sleeps.

Oh, it may doze off now and then or get ensnarled in the weight of its own petard, but it surely keeps grinding along. There isn’t a single stakeholder in the Ontario justice system, however, who doesn’t recognize there are serious issues.

Whether it’s the criminal system where R. v. Jordan has triggered mass panic, the family courts where unrepresented litigants clog the dockets or even the commercial and estates rolls where the lineup of litigants is long and winding, the courts are jammed and delay is inherent.

Even Attorney General Yasir Naqvi recognizes it.

He’s been out making the rounds to spread the Ontario Liberal government message of “fairness” in all things as a prelude to the 42nd general election to be held on or before June 7, 2018, and earlier this month, he told the Oakville Chamber of Commerce that more technology holds the greatest promise in achieving efficiency.

“We really have not seen a very comprehensive, unified approach in using technology when it comes to making the [justice] system more efficient,” Naqvi was quoted by Inside Halton as saying at the gathering.

“In 2017, when I can pick up my phone and open an app to do pretty much everything, it does not make sense that we are running a justice system, which is so important to our day-to-day functioning, in the old paper format.”

The story goes on to report more than 50 per cent of claims are being filed online at Small Claims Court. Civil matters, he continued, are e-filed in five municipalities in Ontario — Newmarket, Ottawa, Sudbury, Brampton and Toronto. Oakville is on tap to launch this fall.

“These are civil matters that tend to be more complex,” Naqvi is quoted as saying. “We’re creating that opportunity to be able to file matters online.

“We’re doing the same thing with family law, moving to online to do child support payments. You don’t have to go into a courthouse.”

Indeed, but none of this is new, and progress has been slow.

The mandate letter to Naqvi, on his appointment to the role of attorney general from Premier Kathleen Wynne last September, tasked him with a lengthy shopping list, including implementing a strategy for digital innovation.

The letter was direct: “Continue to expand innovative online service delivery in the justice system and at ministry agencies, boards and commissions in order to provide Ontarians with services that are more accessible, responsive and easy to use. It also said that Naqvi would need to “continue to modernize and streamline court services with a view to deliver efficient digital and front-line court services,” and that “modernization efforts could include reforms to the Provincial Offences Act, delivering services online and implementing an enhanced triage process for family courts.”

Yet, technology alone is not enough.

Mindsets must change and there’s no shortage of advice being offered.

From the various bar associations to the government’s own commissioned reports such as Justice Annemarie Bonkalo’s review of the family courts, technology is but one tool with other options such as taking lawyers out of the process among others.

The latter has been subject to ferocious criticism. Still, there are other options such as triaging cases at all courts to ensure the smaller matters can be parcelled off and dealt with more informally — and at less cost.

The 2016 changes to the Condominium Act, for example, set the stage for a less formal video tribunal to deal with disputes.

Similarly, changes Naqvi himself tabled to amend the Construction Lien Act would also see a tribunal created to deal with contractual disputes on an interim basis, at least until the project was completed and again, take matters off the civil court docket.

Personal injury matters arising from automobile claims are also heading to a tribunal format — that is, as soon as the court challenge is decided.

Further, as hinted in the letter of mandate, there’s still an ongoing discussion as to how to handle charges under the Provincial Offences Act despite critics’ concerns about watering down the right of fair trial.

Meanwhile, the Landlord and Tenant tribunal seems set to be next for a digital makeover, as is the Ontario Municipal Board, which is also due for a restructuring.

It’s no easy job. Ontario’s justice process was largely designed in the age of the horse and buggy, and remaking it for a digital age will take some time, certainly more than the span of a single attorney general’s mandate.



Ian Harvey has been a journalist for more than 40 years writing about a diverse range of issues including legal and political affairs. His email address is ianharvey@rogers.com.


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