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More outreach, less paper to be focus of Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench: annual report

Thursday, July 18, 2019 @ 1:58 PM | By Ian Burns

Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench is looking to increase accountability, harness new technologies and reduce its reliance on paper as it looks to its future.

These goals were identified as part of “four pillars” to guide the work of the court, identified in its 2017-2018 annual report released July 9. The four pillars involve improving communications and public outreach; moving towards a paperless court; embracing diversity, inclusion and access to justice; and reforming the family justice system (RFJS), early resolution and referral.

Darryl Ruether, executive legal counsel to Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Mary Moreau, said the court started strategic planning under former chief justice Neil Wittmann when it was decided the court’s internal governance needed to be revamped, leading to the development of four priorities laid out in the court’s current strategic plan, which included better integrating technological solutions into court operations and achieving greater autonomy. The strategic plan is reviewed annually to ensure it continues to reflect the court’s goals and priorities, but the 2018 annual review was “much more robust” to reflect the priorities of the new court administration led by Chief Justice Moreau, who was appointed in October 2017.

“We were halfway through our second strategic plan in 2017 when Chief Justice Moreau was appointed,” he said. “She had been part of the strategic planning committee for pretty much that entire time, so she was very well informed and well prepared to take over having been part of that process the whole time.”

Ruether said the pillars are closely connected to the ideas that the court had been working out through the strategic plan. He noted the focus on improving communications and public outreach was of particular importance to Chief Justice Moreau.

“She had a view that the court needed more public engagement,” he said. “And what we’ve done is hire a former journalist from Edmonton, Tony Blais, as our media liaison. That has been extremely helpful to us to have his perspective in understanding what it is the media needs from us.”

But Ruether noted “courts can be pretty old-fashioned, conservative institutions” that are slow to adopt things like Twitter.

“The need to reach out via social media and that sort of interactivity is a big part of where this comes from,” he said. “There’s a number of other things we have done, such as revamping our website and put up videos of the courthouses to show these aren’t scary places — people can watch the videos and see what to expect when they get here. So we’re really just trying to make use of technology to make the courts more accessible.”

Ruether noted the second pillar, moving towards a more paperless court, is something that was identified in the initial round of strategic planning back in 2011.

“For anyone who works inside a courthouse, one of the first things you will come to understand is just how much movement of paper goes on — you can sit outside a courthouse and see lawyers wheeling in giant boxes and briefcases full of paper,” he said. “So I think courts across the country recognize that we need to do something about this.”

Ruether said things have been done with existing resources, and the court has started to ask counsel to e-mail materials at the same time they are filed to ensure it has electronic versions of those materials, so if a paper document hasn’t made its way to a court file yet it can be accessed electronically.

“But those are things that make our lives easier here. There is a difference between filing a paper document and then e-mailing a copy to us and actually filing a document online,” he said. “We don’t have that IT infrastructure yet, but that’s where the public is really going to see a benefit. We are very aware IT infrastructure like this is an expense and it’s not the kind of thing the court can do on its own, so it’s something we want to do in collaboration with the government and we have been working with them on it.”

Ruether said several judges have been looking closely at what is going on in British Columbia in terms of greater technology in courtrooms but has not reached the point where trials or hearings could be conducted electronically, for example.

“We would like to get to the point where we can reduce the paper flow and we think it would be a major convenience to the public if they could file things with us without having to file things at the courthouse,” he said.

In achieving the goal of greater diversity and inclusion, the court has rebranded its access to justice steering committee as the diversity, inclusion and access committee, with the court aiming to increase diversity to make it a “more interesting place to work as well as a more innovative, effective and productive organization.”

Ruether said the initial focus in this area has been working with the province’s Indigenous community, noting a strong outreach effort in Lethbridge.

“We have judges there who have worked over the course of their careers with Indigenous groups outside of the town,” he said. “The court on the whole is really looking to the work that has been done there as a model.”

The fourth pillar, involving reform of the family justice system (RFJS), early resolution and referral, is large in scope and involves tackling lead times, an issue plaguing courts across the nation. Ruether said lead times for civil cases in Alberta “have been very bad” and are a real concern for the court. He noted Alberta’s rules of court were amended several years ago to impose mandatory alternative dispute resolution (ADR) prior to the scheduling of a hearing, but those requirements were lifted in February 2013 due to insufficient judicial resources.

“But we did get some additions to our complement in the last few years and one thing we did was lift the suspension of those rules, but we put some restrictions on judicial dispute resolution in the hope that our Judicial Dispute Resolution (JDR) and mediation resources outside the court are now sufficient so that more civil matters will go to ADR, reduce the volume coming into us and hopefully lead to a reduction in lead times,” he said.

The work on RFJS is a collaborative process between the court, the provincial government and the Law Society of Alberta, said Ruether. The steps the court has been taking there involve developing a pilot that will focus on assisting family litigants to limit the adversarial processes in which they engage; seeking supports to assist them to address their family issues outside of the courts and adversarial processes; and engaging with the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General and community supports on a pilot that will employ Ministry staff in a new role as “justice system navigators.”

“It is a quasi-independent project off doing its own thing, but one thing that has come out of RFJS is the court’s own work in early intervention in family case conferences,” he said. “Family proceedings at the court are almost always scheduled for an initial case conference, which is a chambers hearing where the parties get early access to a judge — that early access allows the judge to drive the matter to resolution on as many issues as possible early, rather than letting the whole thing sit. So that’s one thing that’s been very helpful over the last year or so.”

Ruether noted the court lobbied for an increase in the judicial complement for many years, and this bore fruit when the province legislated an increase of 11 puisne judges and one new associate chief justice which was later funded by the federal government in the 2017 budget.

“We did get the increase to the complement we have been looking for, it’s just that we are behind there because there had not been a meaningful increase to the court’s complement since 1996,” he said. “You can imagine the kind of strain the population increase had on the court between 1996 and 2015 — so we were extremely pleased that finally we did get those positions, but we are still catching up.”