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CourtCanada prez calls AG’s defence ‘laughable’

|Written By Michael McKiernan

Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General has denied breaching its contract with CourtCanada Ltd. in a defence the technology company’s president brands “laughable.”

In a statement of defence, the AG’s ministry says it never made any commitment to expand CourtCanada’s online court scheduling system.

In a statement of defence filed on July 28, the ministry says it never made any commitment to expand CourtCanada’s Online System for Court Attendance Reservations (OSCAR) into all divisions of the Superior Court of Justice and denied CourtCanada’s allegation that staffers had deliberately sabotaged the online system.

Instead, it says OSCAR created more work for court staff and was hampered by an “apparent lack of interest” in the commercial division of the court, one of two areas where OSCAR was deployed.

Those claims have angered Greg Azeff, president of CourtCanada, who tells Law Times the system actually improved the efficiency of court bookings.

“Some of the statements they make are just laughable,” he says. “It’s more than a little bit disingenuous. They’ve been managing this program improperly from Day 1.”

None of the claims have been proven in court and ministry spokesman Brendan Crawley says he will not comment while the case was before the courts.

The ministry approached Azeff’s company in late 2006 about developing a pilot project that would improve efficiency of court scheduling in Toronto.

That resulted in a trial of OSCAR in the estates division of the Superior Court that began in October 2007. Up until that date, litigants had to contact the court by phone or fax, or appear in person to schedule a matter.

OSCAR allowed lawyers registered on the system to book court time online for a $15 fee payable to CourtCanada. In return, the company provided the technology to the ministry for free and used its data to make court schedules publicly available at no charge.

In December 2008, the company was informed it had won a bid to develop a web-based court scheduling system and entered into an agreement with the ministry, which is where the trouble began.

In its statement of claim, filed in Superior Court on July 8, CourtCanada claims the agreement entitled it to expand OSCAR to all divisions of the Superior Court. However, by July 2009, the system was only operating in the estates and commercial divisions.

In March 2010, the government informed the company it had no intention of using OSCAR anywhere else. In its defence, the ministry said the agreement entitled it to pull the plug.

“The ministry specifically advised proponents that it made no guarantee of the value or volume of work to be assigned to the successful proponent,” says the statement of defence.

Azeff says he invested considerable sums of money developing and marketing the system on the understanding it would be deployed in all court divisions in Toronto, with the potential for expansion provincewide.

“We understand there was no guarantee as to how many people would book online, as opposed to traditional means, but the idea that we spent the money we spent on developing the system so that they could arbitrarily decide to shelve it; that was never a risk that was contemplated under the agreement,” he says.

The AG’s defence states CourtCanada should have sought clarification if it was unsure on the terms of the agreement.

“If CourtCanada expended funds in anticipation of such a deployment, it did so without any direction from Ontario at a time when it was well aware of the terms of its agreement with Ontario,” reads the defence.

After the expansion into the commercial division, the ministry says the program ran into trouble because of overlap with its existing electronic case management system, FRANK.

The statement of defence asserts staff had to enter matters in both systems, adding an “excessive” amount of time to their workload and requiring them to work “over lunch hours, at night and on some weekends.”

It claims the duplication issue proved a stumbling block when the parties discussed expansion into the civil motions division because of the high volume of matters there.

In any case, the ministry says the take-up from the commercial bar suggested it wasn’t interested in using OSCAR. In the year after the system was introduced to the commercial division, just 52 matters, less than one per cent, were scheduled through the system.

Azeff blames the ministry for the low use, saying it failed to add enough court dates to the system, despite their availability. He says lawyers wanted to use OSCAR, but were unable to.

“The demand was there and the system went in because the community was calling out for it. We’ve got all kinds of letters from lawyers who were unable to book online, then called the court office directly and got the date they wanted,” he says.

In the estates division, where FRANK is not in use, Azeff says more than half of all matters are scheduled using OSCAR. He says his company offered to solve the duplicated entries in the commercial division by importing data from OSCAR into FRANK, but that the ministry rebuffed him.

In its statement of claim, CourtCanada also accuses the government of sabotaging the system by deleting scheduled matters in the commercial court.

In its defence, the ministry denies ever deleting matters and says the confusion was caused by a change in the way it entered them into OSCAR. Instead of copying all matters in FRANK into OSCAR, staff began simply blocking off the time in OSCAR for a matter booked in FRANK to save time in data entry.

The statement of defence says this lasted for two days before staff returned to the old practice of entering all matters in OSCAR as well as FRANK.

Azeff says it’s the first time he’s heard that explanation and he’s not convinced.

“It’s simply an ex post facto rationalization of what they were doing. They had to come up with something that would have some ring to it. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

Azeff says OSCAR logs every change made to the system and his records show that ministry staff began removing future scheduled matters from the system.

“What you see is a systematic and intentional pattern of deleting matters from the system,” he says.

The case is still in the pleadings phase. Azeff says he will be filing a reply to the AG’s defence shortly.

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