Marriage of family law and technology: A much-needed union
Monday, October 21, 2019 @ 12:27 PM | By Kathryn Hendrikx
Technology has become so enmeshed in modern life, from Google Maps to online banking, that citizens engaging with the Canadian legal system are wondering why the same level of service and convenience is not available. Fortunately, in Ontario, both the superior and provincial family courts are implementing new technological processes in order to modernize the system.
By way of context, in the last year the Superior Court of Justice had approximately 47,000 new family law actions commenced. Given that there are at least two parties to a court action, the total number of litigants in court could be more than 94,000 people.
Each of these litigants must access the courts, legal advice and legal information while wending their way through the family law system. Significant systemic resources would be necessary to ensure that even litigants with lawyers have access to justice. However, given that 60 per cent of these new litigants are self-represented, and that self-represented litigants require more resources and support to pursue their cases, it is no surprise that the court system was struggling under the sheer volume of people accessing the courts.
It was clear that the legal system required further and more systemic modernization and new technology to streamline processes.
Outdated technology and paper-based processes make it challenging for people to navigate the legal system and access the information they need. Many rely on the Internet for legal information and, while there is an abundance of information online, separating the wheat from the chaff is challenging for litigants who don’t possess the foundational knowledge to do so.
Information from the courts would be the most reliable for litigants, but many are unaware of the resources available in the courthouse until they arrive to file their materials. The courts and family law require a technological upgrade to cope with the limited judicial resources, high cost of lawyers and ever-increasing self-represented litigants who are accessing legal services.
Another common issue is the inability to digitally file materials. After 17 years of practice I am still looking for options when my clients ask to digitally file their materials with the courts. It becomes harder when I explain that process servers may stand in line for two hours to physically file the paper documents and that the associated costs will be paid by the client. These and other processes have been the subject of the modernization of the courts over the past few years.
There are ample opportunities for the court system to improve its procedures with technology. Modernization saves time, increases efficiencies and assists self-represented parties in navigating the legal processes. Many initiatives are underway in civil and criminal courts.
Family law has also seen technological changes. Online child support and recalculations are already available online. Both parties can input the necessary income information and the Notice of Calculation or Notice of Recalculation will be mailed out. Many judges, law associations, lawyers and related parties have provided recommendations and best practices that would enhance court infrastructure and increase access to digital and technological services. The adoption of these changes would result in efficiencies for all involved.
Most recently, Ontario introduced a service where family law parties can file joint divorce applications online. The process of filing materials and obtaining an order has been digitized. This shortens the time to finalize a divorce by reducing trips to the courthouse and automating the exchange of information. This also saves costs for parties by avoiding the costs of using process servers to file their applications.
Another innovation is the e-filing pilot project at the Ontario Court at 47 Sheppard Ave., in Toronto. The pilot project allows lawyers to file case conference briefs by email, provided that the appropriate steps are taken and necessary information is given. These technologies are representative of what technology can do to modernize Ontario’s court processes.
Modernization and technology in the courtroom provides a way of delivering court services and legal services in a manner that reflects the evolution of our society. Smart phones and laptops with seamless access to data across multiple platforms are the norm. The expectation for the “everyperson” is that these technologies are readily available. All levels of government, the courts and practitioners are now invested in the modernization of the courts. I am hopeful that these types of services, fueled by technology and the desire to bring them up to date, will assist all Ontarians seeking access to justice and to the courts.
Kathryn Hendrikx, of Kathryn Hendrikx Family Law, has a passion for family law. She is trained in alternative dispute resolution, mediation and collaborative family law methods. Kathryn helps families with issues such as custody and access of children, parenting plans and high conflict separations. She is the past president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario and has been quoted in publications including the Globe and Mail.
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