Opening of Ontario courts has top judges talking tech

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (September 29, 2023, 2:56 PM EDT) -- September 28 marked the annual opening of Ontario’s courts, and top judges in the province used the occasion to stress the need for a continued push towards greater use of technology.

The first to speak to those gathered in a downtown Toronto courtroom was Ontario Chief Justice Michael Tulloch, who stressed the need for “the courts and the justice system to be dynamic and agile” in a time of “rapid and momentous advancements in technology.”

“Our success in transitioning the courts to virtual hearings during the pandemic is a testament to our technological capacities. But we must not stop there,” said Chief Justice Tulloch, who was appointed Ontario’s Chief Justice in December 2022 — the first Black judge to hold that title.

“I have traveled to rural, northern and Indigenous communities in Canada, where I felt viscerally how accessing a court in person often proves difficult for those residents. Strengthening our courts’ ability to securely operate digitally is crucial to ensuring that these communities have the same access to justice as those in metropolitan cities. In my view, this is a natural progression of the courts’ ongoing modernization projects, such as the launch of the Court of Appeal’s new electronic case management system last year.”

It was in August 2022 that Ontario’s Appeal Court announced the launch of its “new digital case tracking system for entering and tracking case data and providing improved document management.”

During his speech, Superior Court Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz was even more adamant in there being a need to continue modernization. While he gave his thanks to Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey and Deputy Attorney General David Corbett “for their leadership and dedication,” Chief Justice Morawetz said “there is still much work needed to improve the court’s operations.”

He spoke of the province’s Digital Transformation Initiative.

In late 2021, Ontario’s government announced the launch of the new system — the goal, to replace “outdated paper-based procedures with an online platform to manage cases, documents and schedules.”

Chief Justice Morawetz referred to it as a “milestone” — a big step “towards our shared commitment to improve the administration of justice for all of Ontario.”  

“When I began my tenure as Chief Justice of the Superior Court, my vision was for a modern transformation of the court. This vision saw the end to an antiquated and paper-based justice system. When I approached the Attorney [General] in … 2020 with the request that the ministry procure an end-to-end, off the shelf digital solution to modernize all our court processes, I understood that he, too, shared the vision for a more modern, accessible and effective justice system.”

Chief Justice Morawetz spoke of a resulting “unprecedented partnership” between Ontario’s justice ministry and the courts.

But he also went on to say he hoped Downey and Corbett will “also prioritize and provide for the necessary infrastructure of technology in our courtrooms and our courthouses to support not just the digital transformation down the road but to ensure that our court’s hearings today are supported by the available technology and staff in the courtroom and in the courthouse.”

Ontario Court of Justice Chief Justice Sharon Nicklas took a more tempered view of increased technology. Like Chief Justice Morawetz, she praised the Digital Transformation Initiative. However, she also spoke of a flipside: the loss of personal touch.

While acknowledging that the pandemic and the resulting shift to “virtual work” revealed its advantages, Chief Justice Nicklas said it also presents the challenge of being at a “crossroads.”

“The shift to virtual work for health and safety reasons revealed that it could be advantageous to access justice using technology,” she said. “Still, we also see that the changes this brings may not always lead to timely justice, when there is less personal attention to individuals, their cases, and the often-challenging human and societal issues those matters present us with.”

Towards the tail end of the event, Downey spoke.

“No matter what the scope, our end goal is clear: we want to provide a modern system for everyone who uses it,” said Downey, dressed in the traditional gown, waistcoat, white tabs and black robe.

“I look forward to the continued collaboration, and … this will work because we’re all invested in it, we’re all working together, and … it has to work for everybody.”  

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