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Mohan Sharma sm

Consultant’s study seeks complete technology solution for Ontario Superior Court

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 @ 3:04 PM | By John Schofield

Last Updated: Thursday, August 13, 2020 @ 9:15 AM


By November of last year, 4.5 years after striking a modernization committee chaired by Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz, Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice had marked at least two steps forward: the introduction of Wi-Fi into courthouses and the ability to patch long distance phone calls into courtrooms.

Now, forced into the 21st century by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Superior Court of Justice and the Ministry of the Attorney General have hired global consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to recommend an end-to-end technology solution to meet the needs of the Superior Court and all its stakeholders, including judges, lawyers and litigants — especially the growing number of self-represented litigants.

The PwC recommendation will also encompass the Ontario Court of Justice’s Family Division. And, if successful, the system could potentially be used by other courts in the province, as well — seamlessly integrating with courthouse infrastructure and allowing for remote work.

PwC began work on the $470,000 contract in June and is expected to deliver its recommendations this fall. “The decision to engage PwC to conduct a comprehensive study of the court’s operations,” said Jesse Robichaud, a spokesperson for Attorney General Doug Downey, “represents a direct path toward additional actions to support justice innovation and to modernize Ontarians’ interactions with the justice system from end-to-end, including moving more services online.”

Mohan Sharma, executive legal officer at Ontario Superior Court of Justice

The decision to hire an external consultant was born, in part, out of the frustration the chief justice’s office and other Superior Court leaders were feeling over the court’s slow technological progress, said Mohan Sharma, executive legal officer in the office of chief justice of the Superior Court.

“We were chugging along so slowly without any tangible benefits and we just said enough is enough,” Sharma told The Lawyer’s Daily. “We said to the Ministry we need to give up our reliance on building in-house solutions and look at a lot of the commercial off-the-shelf solutions that were commonly being used in jurisdictions around the world. So our pitch to the Ontario government last fall was let’s get an external consultant to come on board to look at what are the technology needs for the Superior Court.”

Ultimately, said Sharma, PwC will recommend whether an in-house solution or an off-the-shelf product will best meet the needs of the Superior Court and possibly the Ontario Court of Justice’s Family Division.

On Aug. 10, the Superior Court of Justice launched a two-week test phase for CaseLines, a cloud-based document sharing and storage platform for remote and in-person court proceedings. Developed by U.K.-based Netmaster Solutions Ltd., the initial trial will involve select civil motions and pretrial conferences. It will expand Aug. 24 to include all Toronto civil, Divisional Court, commercial and estate list and bankruptcy matters, and is expected to be implemented at all court locations in Ontario by the end of the year.

CaseLines, which is used in courts in the United Kingdom, South Africa and the United States, claims a user-friendly interface and allows materials of any size and file format to be uploaded. Combined with new services being added this month to the homegrown Justice Services Online portal, the two systems will replace the practice during the COVID-19 pandemic of e-mailing civil and family court documents to generic Court Services Division e-mail addresses.

Court documents uploaded into the new Civil Submissions Online and Family Submissions Online portal services, after online payment, will be reviewed by court staff to determine if they can be accepted for filing and/or issuance. Filers will receive an e-mail indicating whether their documents were accepted.

But CaseLines is not integrated with the Justice Services Online Portal, and parties will be required to upload their court documents into CaseLines in advance of their hearings. With its focus on document filing, it falls short of the end-to-end solution the Superior Court is seeking, said Sharma.

In fact, he noted, the entire Superior Court is operating with a patchwork of systems that don’t mesh. The Frank case inventory system keeps track of cases and can store documents that have been filed, but it’s intended as a tool for the court services division and is not used by judges to access documents. The Zoom video network for remote hearings is separate. There are separate data analysis platforms, and a separate financial accounting platform to process fees or issue payments. There is no automatic transcription system. To be able to use all the systems, court staff need to read up to a dozen manuals, said Sharma.

“There is a myriad of different technology platforms that the Ministry is using that don’t speak to each other and none of them have been developed with a judicial user in mind,” he explained.

The court needs a user-friendly system, said Sharma, that handles all those functions and gives judges easy access to documents, saves lawyers and litigants the trouble of e-filing them more than once, that allows them to self-schedule matters with judicial oversight.

“You can book a trip to the Arctic from home,” he noted. “I don't know why you can't schedule an hour-long motion at a nearby courthouse from home, as well.

“So we're looking for a system that includes consideration of the judicial user,” he added, “so that when parties are filing materials or they’re scheduling matters, they all line up so judges can get the information, the documents that are filed, and the systems align with how we schedule our judges.”

Sharma said the Ontario Court of Appeal recently adopted C-Track, a case management system developed by Thomson Reuters, which may provide a glimpse of the future.

The Ontario government has tried several times over the years to develop a comprehensive system in house, he added, but started shying away from large, in-house technology ventures after the failure of the Integrated Justice Project (IJP) in 2000.

“The big lesson learned from the failure of IJP was don’t go too big,” he said. “But a lot has happened in technology over the last 20 years and there are systems that out there that are being used in jurisdictions around the world that have been tried and tested, and I think it’s now time for the government to reassess its position of doing baby steps and patchwork solutions. It’s now time to look at a full end-to-end solution.”
 
While an off-the-shelf solution is not a foregone conclusion of the PwC study, it’s likely, said Sharma.

“We are of the view that an off-the-shelf solution is required,” he said. “Our experience to date has been that internally built systems within government are problematic for a variety of reasons. The people who work in government may not be on the cutting-edge of the technology that’s out there and available. We think that the private sector likely has greater skill and ability to deliver solutions and they’re more agile in their ability to be responsive to needs of the court.”

Funding is another issue, said Sharma. In the past, the Treasury Board allocated relatively modest amounts of money for discrete, in-house technology projects. “What’s resulted is we have this patchwork of different systems,” he added, “and we need there to be a significant investment. And if you’re going to invest significantly, you may as well go with the best quality product, which we believe is available from the private sector.”

But to avoid a public-private fiasco like the failed, federal Phoenix pay system, the government will have to go with a court technology platform that has proved itself in other jurisdictions, he cautioned.

Amid the difficulty of COVID-19 has emerged the unprecedented impetus to get it right when it comes to court technology. “Since the pandemic has happened,” said Sharma, “the attorney general has been highly supportive of getting the right technology solutions for the Superior Court of Justice. He has been very helpful.”

Still, the solution won’t come overnight. And once arrived at, it could take as long as a year to fully implement in all Superior Court sites and all areas of the court’s work, he said.

“We don’t want to jump too quickly and we need PwC to do their homework first to recommend a solution,” he added.

As part of the process, PwC is consulting widely, gaining feedback through group interviews and surveys with more than 100 stakeholders across 22 stakeholder groups, including judges, members of the bar, court staff, representatives from police and correctional facilities and self-represented litigants.

William Woodward, Dyer Brown LLP and chair of the FOLA

William Woodward, a partner with London, Ont.-based Dyer Brown LLP and chair of the Federation of Ontario Law Associations (FOLA), which represents about 12,000 lawyers across the province, said ease of access for all users should be the top priority in choosing an end-to-end system. FOLA has emphasized that point in its consultations with the chief justice’s office and the Ministry of the Attorney General, he said.

“There are many people in areas that just won’t have Internet access or easy Internet access,” Woodward told The Lawyer’s Daily, “so one of the thoughts that was kicked around in one of the meetings was to establish sort of a Service Ontario kiosk where someone who may not have access or can afford access can go to a kiosk and do their court filings. And it has to be relatively easy in terms of being able to work your way through the system. So I think that’s important.”

Woodward said he is satisfied with the amount of consultation and co-operation that’s taking place among all stakeholders, but the technological shift will continue to be more challenging for some. FOLA is trying to help its members make the adjustment through continuing education, he said.

“Some members of the bar and the judiciary are less technologically inclined, which may create other barriers or other problems,” he said. “So there may not be a willingness there to embrace our new reality.

“There’s a lot of new issues that will have to be addressed,” he added, “and everybody is working hard to try to find ways to make things work in our new world.”

Those wishing to comment on a potential technology system for the Superior Court are invited to contact Tarek Emara, PwC Canada’s national public safety and justice leader at tarek.emara@pwc.com.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact John Schofield at john.schofield@lexisnexis.ca or call (905) 415-5891.