The Case for Not Returning to In-Person Hearings (Part 2)
Last week we published Part 1 of our three-part Blog series in favour of a novel and perhaps brave conclusion: That in the Ontario Family Court system, in-person court hearings should no longer become the default or the norm. Instead, they should be supplanted by virtual hearings, which have proven to be amply effective in the past two years.
In that first Blog installment, we refuted the supposed objection by some judges themselves, who complain of potential technology challenges and caseload increases. In our contention, this can be fully addressed not by retreating to the in-person hearing model, but rather through better training of the judiciary. Simple fix.
Now, in this Part 2 of the series, we’ll briefly sharpen our focus on those who can benefit the most from virtual hearings: The Family litigants themselves.
Technology and Access to Justice
In our view, the real advantage to in-person hearings is that they optimize public access to justice.
There’s no disputing that in the past two years, the day-to-day workings of the Ontario Family system has improved by leaps and bounds. There is digital filing of case materials, and a new technology platform called CaseLines. This means filing and case management procedures are more efficient than ever before.
But the true ground-breaker – hands down – is the availability of virtual hearings.
Case conferences and trials can now be held by Zoom or Skype, no matter where the litigants are situated geographically. Most people have access to a computer and the internet – but even if they currently don’t, it’s foreseeable that justice “hubs” could be set up at libraries, in the Superior Court of Justice’s Family Law Information Centres, or in the still-empty courtrooms. And no matter where it happens, participating in a remote hearing is not a technical challenge for most – even if it’s with the assistance of a friend, family, or employer.
Next, the permanent use of virtual hearings will arguably have many trickle-down effects to individual litigants, too. They can choose their preferred lawyers from anywhere in the province they wish. With virtually unlimited choices, litigants may feel they are better served. This geographical lee-way will also make lawyers more readily available for the currently under-served northern and rural communities. Litigants who hold Legal Aid Certificates will be more likely to secure representation.
For all these reasons, remote hearing technology – especially when used in tandem with other advancements – has truly opened doors. The Ontario Family Justice system has never been so accessible to the many who need it.
A second significant benefit is seen in the vast improvements around procedural efficiency. This in turn can reduce costs for those litigants who seek justice.
For example, the individual expenses incurred by couples who divorce have arguably been driven downward by virtual hearings.
Litigants and their lawyers do not need to be physically present in the courthouse. This means everyone’s travel costs can be kept low. There is no commuting to court. No traffic. No parking. Court security line-ups, confrontations, and courthouse conflicts are all eliminated. And when litigants are represented by lawyers, this can also avoid having to pay them to wait long hours in a busy courtroom for the case to start.
Even if litigants are self-represented, they can save on the time and hassle of have to find transportation to the courthouse. Instead, they can each appear on-screen from their own locations. (And all this reduced travel has an environmental bonus too: a smaller carbon footprint!).
In the next installment in our Blog series, we will address the alleged (and merely theoretical) concerns around a court having to manage a “mixed” lists of cases, consisting of both in-person and virtual hearings. Stay tuned for that.