Ontario Courts to Paperless? COVID-19 Could Drive Digital Change – Part Three
This is the third in a series of Blogs devoted to promoting the prospect of a “paperless justice” system for Ontario Family Law matters. It comes in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted widespread court closures and has brought the justice system to a halt for all litigants across the country.
In the last Blog we touched on some of the calls-to-action that had been directed at the Ontario and Canadian courts in the past. These encouraged courts to embrace modern technology and allow for “paperless justice” in Family Law matters, including the ability to electronically file Family Court documents.
Yet in Ontario the current-day Family Law Rules still require the parties to serve file and serve paper copies, the same way it was done 100 years ago. In this aspect, our justice system is still lagging far behind, even though the proposals for change go back almost a decade.
This is in stark contrast to the process in several U.S. states, for example, where paperless court filings have been the norm – and indeed have been mandatory – for much longer than that.
Colorado is one of these jurisdictions: It has had mandatory e-filing of virtually all Family Law documents since January 1, 2006. The process was introduced on a rollout schedule, as determined by the Colorado Supreme Court and announced through its website. The court also published directives and practice standards aimed at lawyers and at the clerks of the relevant court systems.
Likewise in Texas, the court system has featured mandatory e-filing by lawyers since January 1, 2014 for certain courts. This initiative was spearheaded by the Supreme Court of Texas, which amended the Rules of Civil Procedure by way of an order, to specifically allow for and mandate electronic filing. Today, the process starts with a court-provided technology infrastructure; access to it is facilitated by third-party service providers from the private sector. The lawyer obtains an account with one them, and files the document through their interface, along with the case number.
It’s simple, and efficient. And it’s fully paperless.
As the Colorado and Texas illustrations show, these kinds of mandatory electronic filing regimes have worked well for extended periods. The benefits accrue to the numerous stakeholders in the justice system. When asked about his experience with the paperless system, a Colorado lawyer named Ken Peck, replied:
“I filed in a Denver Court once from a tent in Grand Teton National Park, another time from a plane at 35,000’, and another time from the back seat of car traveling through New Hampshire. It’s life changing.”
Were the Ontario Family Law courts prepared to follow this model, it would serve not only the lawyers, but also the litigants they represent. Not to mention that it would streamline the court processes directly, by reducing the overall staff workload around handling and filing hard copies.
So why hasn’t Ontario made the transition? The reason is unclear, but it’s better late, than never.
And as regrettable as it is, the COVID-19 pandemic may serve as a “shove” in the right direction: In an announcement to the legal profession made on March 15, 2020, the Chief Justice of the Ontario Courts made a broad and rather astonishing order: In light of COVID-19, “[a]ll criminal and civil matters scheduled to be heard on or after March 17, 2020 are adjourned”. At least in part, this was done to protect the health of court staff who would otherwise be on-site, including those tasked with receiving hardcopy court materials filed by litigants. It’s not a stretch to speculate that this order may not have been as comprehensive if a paperless justice system was already in place.
For the next Blog in this series, we will look at some of the first steps that Ontario Family Courts can take, to put a paperless document filing into place.
To review Part One of this series click: here.
To review Part Two click: here.