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Ontario Courts to Paperless? COVID-19 Could Drive Digital Change – Part Two

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Written by Russell Alexander / (905) 655-6335

Ontario Courts  to Paperless? COVID-19 Could Drive Digital Change – Part Two

In the first part of our Blog in this multi-part series, we outlined some of the longstanding concerns about the lack of modernization in Ontario courts, including the chronic delay in moving the filing system away from a paper-based one, towards an electronic filing model.

In this second Blog part, we address some of the suggestions that have been put forward by stakeholders – in many cases, long ago – with the goal of prodding the Canadian justice system toward a more forward-thinking, contemporary model in this area.

Calls For Reform

“Paperless justice”, as we will call it, is not a new idea. The highly regarded website, which bills itself as “Canada’s online legal magazine” has hosted numerous articles and Blogs over the years written by a broad array of legal authors and other interested writers, each of whom proposed an upgrade to a more electronically-based court filing system for courts throughout North America.

The conversation on this point has actually spanned many, many years, but with little to show for it.

As recently as 2017, for example, there was an article curiously noting the persistent and widespread lack of computer infrastructure within even newly-built courthouses in California, which of course is home to Silicon Valley, the epicenter of modern technology.

Going back to 2013, the authors of an article make some predictions about the future of courthouse technology, and in foreseeing that appellate courts will go fully paperless, they cautiously declare:  “We’re not dumb enough to predict when, but it will happen.”

Well, it hasn’t happened soon enough.

Most recently in December of 2019, the pervasive reluctance by the Canadian justice system to fully embrace technology of all types has undergone more intense scrutiny:  A five-part series [Available here: part 1part 2part 3, part 4 and part 5] chronicles some initiatives proposed in an assortment of scholarly papers, studies, and pilot projects conducted by the Cyberjustice Laboratory and its partners during the course of a seven-year long “Towards Cyberjustice” project.  Among the many worthwhile suggestions for modernizing the court system is the repeated call to at least lay the security and data-privacy groundwork needed to implement paperless courts.   To date, the justice system is far behind in taking these necessary strides.

What’s In Place Now

To give these proposed initiatives some context in Ontario:  The shift towards a comprehensive e-filing system for court documents would not even be a major one.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice, for example, already allows for certain types of court documents to be filed electronically. Even in the relatively outmoded Family Law process – where the provincial Family Law Rules still expressly mandate that hardcopy documents must be filed – eligible spouses can currently e-file their applications for a joint uncontested divorce or a simple divorce where no other corollary relief is being claimed.

Conceivably, then, a switch to e-filing all court documents would not be a quantum leap, as far the needed technological infrastructure goes.

Update, March 25, 2020:   In the course of putting the finishing touches on this segment of the Blog series, the Supreme Court of Canada, the Ontario Court of Appeal have announced that – as a direct result of COVID-19 social/physical distancing measures – they are now allowing court documents to be filed by email.  The Ontario Superior Court of Justice appears to be accepting emails from parties on urgent matters.

It’s regrettable that these initiatives toward paperless justice come only now, and only with seeming reluctance, in response to a catastrophic global event like COVID-19 which has made them necessary.  Let’s hope they are not merely temporary.

Next Up: The U.S. Experience

For the next Blog in this series, we will look at what some U.S. states have accomplished in the area of paperless justice, as paradigms for what Canadian courts may want to learn and borrow from.

You can review Part One of this series: here.

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About the author

Russell Alexander

Russell Alexander is the Founder & Senior Partner of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers.