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Superior Court chief justice commits to continuing technological change

Wednesday, December 09, 2020 @ 1:06 PM | By John Schofield

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a “strike of lightning” or a “full-scale tornado” that forced Ontario’s court system to finally embrace technological change, but barriers to justice remain, says Superior Court Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz.

“What the pandemic has done is make the previous status quo impossible, forcing the justice system into a different way of operating,” Chief Justice Morawetz said in a Dec. 7 virtual keynote address to the sixth annual diversity conference organized by the Roundtable of Diversity Associations (RODA), a federation of 21 diverse lawyers’ associations and the Ontario Bar Association.

Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz

“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made so far, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds,” he added, “but this pride and hope are marred by the tragic situation that brought us here in the first place.”

Despite the court system’s technological progress, barriers to access to justice have only increased for many, conceded Chief Justice Morawetz.

“I know that for some, technology is just another barrier,” he noted. “Remote hearings may be inaccessible to a variety of reasons, whether it’s an inability to afford the technology or a suitable Internet plan, an abuser controlling a litigant’s access to communication devices, insufficient Internet connectivity, or a whole host of other factors.”

The Superior Court has worked to facilitate litigants’ access to remote hearings through initiatives such as corporate donations of phones and SIM cards to organizations serving vulnerable litigants involved in remote hearings, he said. “We are still grappling with this issue,” he added, “and we know that more needs to be done.”

Chief Justice Morawetz told attendees at the online conference that Ontario’s courts also remain committed to promoting a culture of inclusion and diversity within the judicial system, led by judicial education and the Canadian Judicial Council’s ethical principles for judges.

Education of the judiciary “is a critical link between the judiciary and the wider world,” he said. “It is also a matter that must be led by the judiciary. Legislative or executive interference in judicial education is not far from influence over judicial decision making.”

The chief justice pointed to a number of key technological advances that Ontario courts have made since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, including the adoption of CaseLines, a cloud-based, document-sharing and storage platform for virtual and in-person court proceedings.

“I cannot overemphasize how much of a game-changer CaseLines is,” he said. “I venture to say that CaseLines will allow us to spend more time dealing with the substance of the matters before us and less time on trying to sort through reams of paper just to find the one document we were looking for.”

In addition, he noted, since August members of the public can search for information about civil and criminal cases in the Superior Court online, and in October the Ministry of the Attorney General introduced e-filing for small claims court matters. In the coming weeks, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is expected to deliver a $470,000 report recommending a complete, end-to-end technological solution for the Superior Court.

Chief Justice Morawetz said the court will continue to “vigorously pursue” further technological advances, even as it seeks greater independence from government in an effort to address other shortcomings in the courts.

“The court has faced years of frustration in other areas, including courthouse facilities, staffing and security,” he said. “We are seeking to create a new relationship with the provincial government, one in which the court is treated as an independent branch of government, but where there remains fiscal accountability to elected officials.”

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