AI, digitization of courts to be discussed at Ontario A2J Week

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (October 16, 2023, 12:18 PM EDT) -- Exploring the pros and cons of AI, keeping up with the digital transformation of the courts and examining how trans and two-spirited people view the legal sector will be hot topics at the Law Society of Ontario’s Access to Justice Week 2023.

Set to run Oct. 23 through 27, the LSO’s eighth annual A2J Week will feature 33 programs and more than 100 speakers from across Canada, according to information from the law society.

This year’s event planners have zeroed in on some of the most salient and pressing concerns faced by the profession.

There will be three sessions on artificial intelligence. One of them, being partly run by the Law Commission of Ontario (LCO), will take a sober look at AI’s place in the justice system.  

Nye Thomas, executive director of Law Commission of Ontario

Nye Thomas, executive director of Law Commission of Ontario

“Everyone’s heard about the impact of AI on every sector of society,” LCO executive director Nye Thomas told Law360 Canada. “People don’t know as much about how it may affect the justice system. [But] many people have heard of some of the worst-case examples of AI systems that may be discriminatory, that may have what’s called the black box problem. The reason those issues are important is because if [they become] a reality with AI systems in Ontario, it will actually make access to justice worse. So, there’s a need for all of us to learn about how AI systems may affect the justice system.”

Thomas spoke of “other jurisdictions” having AI that has proven to be discriminatory when used to assess things such as government benefits — welfare and housing, for example.  

“Such systems have the potential to make access to justice worse because they are difficult to challenge; they are hard to litigate. It’s hard to identify bias; it’s hard to access remedies; it’s hard to make these systems transparent, to disclose their inner workings — all of which make the access to justice challenge in those circumstances more difficult.”

Another subject will be the courts’ adoption of technology — first done as a coping mechanism during the pandemic lockdowns, and now continued in the name of maintaining efficiency — and the need for lawyers to stay up-to-speed with these changes.  

“There’s a lot of digital transformation occurring in the various court systems across the country,” said Thomas. “Not everyone in the justice system is aware of what those specific initiatives are, so a session like this is very important because it can update people on what the current initiatives are, when they’re going to be rolled out; what the specific objectives are [and] how they are going to work; who’s going to be affected.”

Law societies, generally, require that their members keep up with how certain courts are now using technology. This was made abundantly clear in a recent case out of Alberta, when that province’s Appeal Court cautiously reinstated an appeal considered abandoned after the law firm acting for the appellant failed to both electronically communicate with the court and engage with its digital filing system.

Thomas said that, like AI, this digital transformation can lead to potential hiccups.  

“It’s like any technology initiative, it can improve access to justice, or it can frustrate access to justice, depending upon how it’s rolled out. The key is to successes, however, is that people have notice of what those changes might be, and [that] they understand how the technology is going to work and understand how it can benefit them.”

Another session will look at how trans, two-spirit, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people view the profession, and the discrimination these groups face.

“It has become abundantly clear that members of these communities have unique legal needs,” said Thomas. “What this session is about is identifying those needs, educating people about the complexity of needs within these communities — and, again, trying to propose solutions for addressing those needs. Access to justice is for everyone. The trans and two-spirited communities have growing legal needs. In fact, if you look at the United States — and certain parts of Canada — it is getting worse for these communities. It’s a truism in the access to justice world that not all legal needs are the same. We have an obligation to learn about the legal needs of [these] communities and hear about potential solutions.”

Thomas also spoke in more general terms about this year’s upcoming event.

“Access to Justice Week is, so far as I know, the only event each year that brings together such a broad range of access to justice stakeholders from across the province, and from across the country. … It is really an opportunity for those of us in the access to justice community to learn about what other people are doing.”

He called the event unique in that it will be “solution oriented.”

“It’s not just the same-old, same-old people complaining about access to justice and talking about how many problems there are. It’s actually directed towards presenting solutions to specific problems, so it’s forward looking in that regard.”

LSO treasurer Jacqueline Horvat, who will be moderating the Women in Law panel discussion, said in an email that the event will push legal professionals to consider their place in furthering access to justice.

“As treasurer, one of my key priorities is advocating for innovation to bridge the access to justice gap and enable more Ontarians to access the legal services they need when they need them,” said Horvat. “This Access to Justice week, we want to encourage legal professionals and justice sector partners to think about their roles in delivering access to justice and to foster a culture of innovation that will help us create new and improved avenues for Ontarians to better access the legal advice and services they need.”

Other A2J Week sessions include one on improving legal protections and services for victims of intimate partner violence; another on lawyers and paralegals collaborating in the name of increased access to justice; and another on systemic racism and the overincarceration of Indigenous people.

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