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B.C. Attorney General David Eby

B.C. government looking at improving technology in courtrooms

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 @ 11:29 AM | By Ian Burns

The B.C. government is studying ways to introduce more technology in courtrooms to improve access to justice and the user experience, but observers are saying such change needs to be considered carefully to ensure it functions properly and is accessible to as many people as possible.

Provincial Attorney General David Eby said the province has been working with the courts and stakeholders on how to improve access to justice and the court system through the Court Digital Transformation Strategy (CDTS). He noted there are some large-ticket items such as thinking about use of artificial intelligence (AI) being considered as well as smaller pieces on court scheduling, and the government recently completed a call to firms for ideas on how courts can use artificial intelligence to improve efficiency.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby

Attorney General David Eby

“There were about 40 firms that responded with some really interesting proposals around things like scanning an appearance notice for a traffic ticket with your phone, to more practical solutions like transcription of court docs through AI,” he said. “So, it’s a lot of fun for people to be looking at and some practical solutions that will come out of that to improve people’s interactions with the justice system.”

Eby said the government also held several workshops with stakeholders on modernization, and submissions are still being considered online. He added approximately 12 proposals will eventually be brought forward to be tested to see if they will be effective in the court system.

“There are technologies and ways of approaching people’s interaction with the justice system that pose no threat to judicial independence and the integrity of the process but dramatically increase people’s positive experience with the system,” he said. “And I think that for most people they have a hard time understanding why they must sit through a full morning of another person’s hearings when they have their appearance in front of a judge, or they don’t understand why they can’t book something online. So, it’s really meant to bridge the gap between people’s expectations on scheduling and service and what they actually experience when they go to court.”

Craig Ferris, a litigator with Lawson Lundell LLP who also serves as a bencher with the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC), said the goal to modernize courtrooms is a good one, while “keeping in mind the principles [of] why we have the courtrooms the way we do and making sure that technology works with our system and doesn’t overpower it.”

“I think when we focus on the higher-level courts there needs to be a greater engagement with the bench, the bar and self-represented individuals on how the process can work better and easier for people,” he said. “But you have to make sure those changes work not just for people like me who have lots of resources but also for the person in Dawson Creek who is doing things by himself. You’ve got to cover that kind of spectrum and make sure when you are introducing technology in the courtroom it’s both useful and accessible for people.”

Jonathan Miller of Shibley Righton LLP said it is commendable to see governments like British Columbia moving toward streamlining the system to make it more efficient. He noted Ontario has an online civil filing program that is being rolled out in steps, which he said is the right approach to take.

“You can do too much too quickly, and it can easily go awry, but I think the idea is right in proving and making use of technology such as courtrooms and access to justice is more efficient and less costly,” he said. “I appreciate for the government and justice system there are some upfront costs in establishing the infrastructure for that sort of thing, but you have to start somewhere, and if you can do things like attendances from jails so people don’t have to drive 10 hours to appear in court, there are savings to be had by that.”

Inga Andriessen of Andriessen & Associates said she feels e-scheduling of court dates is something that needs to be tackled and will create greater efficiencies in the court system.

“How hard is it in this day and age when so many platforms have scheduling capabilities to simply throw up a schedule and electronically book,” she said. “All lawyers are registered with the law society, so you could give each lawyer a PIN number that dials right into the courthouse. The biggest issue in the courts is scheduling, so software like that would be a massive help — it would avoid a bunch of unnecessary travelling time and make the courts run more efficiently for everyone.”

But Andriessen said use of video conference “depends on the situation,” and noted one of the challenges when you are doing advocacy is “you need to able read the room.”

“There’s a lot going on, but if you do it electronically, I don’t know if that works the same way,” she said. “Then of course as much as you have the world’s greatest Internet connection it can still can go down. That’s a big problem if you are in the middle of an argument.”

Craig Ferris, Lawson Lundell LLP

Craig Ferris, Lawson Lundell LLP

Ferris noted B.C.’s Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) has developed an online system which leads a user through the forms they have to fill out, and directs them to the resources they need or to a mediation process.

“All of that makes it much simpler for people to access,” he said. “One of the things we’ve talked about at the law society is the generation of people who are graduating from university now have had the Internet and phones in their hand their whole life — they don’t know what it’s like not to live that way. I think probably to help somebody we need to make it more accessible in the way that people now seek information and the way people now correspond, which is different than it was 20 years ago.”

Eby said the goal for government right now is to get ideas on the table and to facilitate discussion with representatives of the courts, the bar and his Ministry “to see what everybody is enthusiastic about so that we’re prioritizing the allocation of resources for technology in the right direction.”

“Right now, we are narrowing down which initiatives we should be focusing on — is it reducing the amount of paper in the courtroom, scheduling or information for people who show up in court?” he said. “We want to know what the priority should be, which is why we are looking for these ideas that are out there right now.”

Any lawyer who is interested in sharing input on court digital transformation can e-mail the B.C. government by clicking here.