Nova Scotia courts turn to public on how to further modernization

By Terry Davidson

Last Updated: Thursday, March 02, 2023 @ 10:22 AM

Law360 Canada (March 1, 2023, 3:09 PM EST) -- A task force in Nova Scotia is asking residents on how they can be better served by the province’s courts through continued modernization and the use of technology.

According to a recent news release, a public survey was launched Feb. 27 in a bid to gather information on “what is working well, what is not working, what could be improved and new ways the courts could digitize and incorporate technology.”

The survey was developed by Nova Scotia’s Digital Task Force (DTF), a joint initiative by the Nova Scotia Judiciary and the provincial government’s justice department, put together in 2021, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a time when the province’s courts, like others across Canada, had been leaning heavily on virtual appearances and teleconferencing in order to stay at least somewhat operational during public health lockdowns.

The DTF sees this as an opportunity for the courts to now continue to modernize beyond the desperate measures brought on by the pandemic. Already, it has received feedback from select members of the province’s legal sector for feedback on how to best do this.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to modernize Canadian courts,” states the DTF on its website. “New technological changes have been introduced in Nova Scotia courts over the past 3 years, making court processes more accessible for users.”

Goals of the DTF include improving access to justice, increasing simplicity and efficiency for users, improving outcomes for people and maintaining “trust and confidence in the court system.”

Now, it is looking for input from the public, as well as the broader legal community.

Chief Justice Michael Wood

Chief Justice Michael Wood

In a recent interview with Law360 Canada, Nova Scotia Chief Justice Michael Wood said the goal is to make the province’s courts more client focused.

“I think, from my perspective — I’ve been on various courts for a dozen years or so now — there has always been this theme: How do we improve access to justice? How do we make it such that individuals — particularly those who don’t have lawyers, but individuals, generally — have a better and more efficient way of accessing the services they need,” said Chief Justice Wood, who is a task force co-chair. “At any stage of my judicial career, you could find people [who] were critical about access to justice for various members of society — and legitimately so. We’re [continuing] to wrestle with that, and I think we’ve recognized now that moving into improved processes, improved technology, is an avenue that will, in the end, facilitate meaningful access to justice.”

The affable senior judge agrees that if there was ever a silver lining to the pandemic for the courts, it was that it forced them into using technology. The COVID-era use of virtual hearings and teleconferences made justice easier and more accessible for people needing it.

There is no going back, he said.

“I’ll tell you right now that pre-pandemic, I don’t think we were servicing people as efficiently and well as we could have — we still aren’t,” he said. “With the new technology, I’m not sure when we’ll get to that point, but it’s always something you need to be striving for. This really is the direction that will allow us to provide better service, better access, quicker turnaround for people. And you have a whole generation of judges coming in who are completely comfortable with all of the technologies.”

It was recently announced that, as of March 1, Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court would be adopting “presumptive default positions” for whether certain civil, family and criminal matters would be heard in person, virtually or by phone.

Unless ordered otherwise by the presiding judge, certain proceedings would automatically be done virtually or by phone, whereas others would be in person.

When asked about this, Chief Judge Wood acknowledged that the results from the DTF’s public survey could cause these defaults to shift and change somewhat.

“We’re finding our way through all of the changes … [during] the pandemic, where everything was by telephone or video. You’re now coming back to a [post-pandemic] scenario where that isn’t required anymore, but there may be certain types of cases where the default is to do it virtually. I’m not on the Supreme Court, so I’m not familiar with all the details, but I would bet that even with matters that are by default telephone or otherwise, it is still open to a person to say in this particular case that doesn’t work for me, and explain why, and the judge presumably would turn their mind to that question.”

Chief Justice Wood was asked what kind of input came in from the legal sector as part of that initial survey.

“Everybody was enthusiastic about moving forward,” he said. “But I think probably the biggest message that I personally heard ... is that what we need to be looking at is not just rolling out a bunch of technology in hopes that that solves things, you need to combine any technological advances that you may make with a commitment to a particular mindset, which may involve people changing their perspective on things. The mindset, from my perspective, is almost like a customer service model, so that people who are engaging with the justice system, they’re able to do it in a way that is accessible and convenient and serves their needs.”

Members of the DTF include Chief Justice Wood, who is co-chair along with Deputy Justice Minister Candace Thomas, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Patrick Duncan, Supreme Court family division Associate Chief Justice Lawrence O’Neil, Provincial Court Chief Judge Pamela Williams, Department of Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services Associate Deputy Minister and chief digital officer Natasha Clarke and lawyers Agnes MacNeil, Paul Saunders and Anna Manley.

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