Task force sets sights on ‘revamping the entire court system,’ says N.S. chief justice

By Donalee Moulton

Law360 Canada (February 9, 2021, 9:28 AM EST) -- As COVID-19 forced lockdowns across the globe, the use of technology ramped up to ensure work could continue in key areas. One of those areas is the judicial system. Now Nova Scotia has established a task force to explore how technology could further improve access to justice, increase efficiencies and create better outcomes.

“The job of the task force is to develop a roadmap for the digital transformation of the courts — significant changes that will help bring the courts into the 21st century,” said Deborah K. Smith, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

 Deborah K. Smith, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia

Chief Justice Deborah K. Smith

“This is a first for Nova Scotia in terms of the magnitude and scope of the work and the level of collaboration. ... This is our first attempt at revamping the entire court system in Nova Scotia,” she added.   

Early on in the pandemic, the courts in Nova Scotia, as elsewhere, were forced to change how matters were heard and service provided to the public. “We developed temporary processes to keep the courts operating and learned a great deal about how technology can help us do our jobs more efficiently. But these were short-term solutions during an emergency,” said Chief Justice Smith.

Now the Nova Scotia judiciary and Department of Justice want to go further. As a first step, the task force will work with a digital consultant to assess the needs of those who work in and appear before the courts.

Once the assessment is complete, the task force, co-chaired by Michael J. Wood, chief justice of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, and Candace L. Thomas, deputy minister of justice and deputy attorney general, will analyze the findings and determine the ways in which technology can be incorporated into the justice system. This, in turn, will help determine where to focus time, resources and energy.

The initiative is about more than efficiency. It is an access to justice issue, said Chief Justice Smith. “Access to justice is an ongoing concern in Canada, and the pandemic has only magnified the existing problems. Technology can help address this.

“Innovative ideas like electronic filing of court documents and improvements to the jury selection process can all improve access to justice, but these ideas require investments in technology,” she added.

Investments to date have proven valuable in providing access to court proceedings throughout the pandemic. Remote appearances by telephone, video and online platforms have enabled courts to hear more matters and have proven beneficial when courtrooms are too small to hold in-person hearings and still comply with physical distancing recommendations.

The single most significant change for the province’s Supreme Court has been the launch of virtual court. “Prior to the pandemic, judges occasionally permitted witnesses to testify remotely, but it was by no means the norm. COVID-19 caused a huge shift in that thinking,” said Chief Justice Smith.

The transition to a virtual court was overseen by a new group, the All Courts Virtual Court Committee. It developed tools and systems to allow the courts to operate remotely using video- and teleconferencing systems. “It was quite a task,” said Chief Justice Smith. “Systems steeped in tradition had to be reconfigured overnight. Judges and staff needed training. It was a big change for many lawyers, too.”

The present virtual court setup is not perfect, she added. “Nevertheless, virtual court options are now available for many appeal, civil, criminal and family matters across Nova Scotia.”

One of the biggest challenges going forward will be the lack of an electronic document management system for the province’s courts. Such a system would permit the judiciary to properly accept and manage electronic filings, and it could provide online access for members of the public and media. “This will be an important area that the task force focuses on,” noted Chief Justice Smith.