Last year The Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG) released a report that examined public perceptions of access to justice in Ontario. For those of us who work in the legal and justice sectors, the results were dismal. Here’s what we heard: 40 per cent of Ontarians do not believe that they have fair and equal access to the justice system. In addition, members of the public chose these descriptors of the justice system: old fashioned, intimidating, broken.
These results seem discouraging, particularly for those of us working to build supports and establish resources that enhance access to justice for various communities. But we can also take them as a challenge — an urgent call to think bigger in devising access to justice solutions, and to move beyond a focus on individual projects or programs toward a major and lasting culture shift.
This was the perspective I brought to the Canadian Open Data Summit (CODS17) in June. CODS17 is devoted to making datasets that are traditionally collected and ‘owned’ by governments, such as statistics, records and maps, available to a diverse range of problem solvers. Each year this conference brings together a group of advocates dedicated to transparency, multi-disciplinary collaboration and devising transformative solutions that will benefit the public.
What can the justice sector gain from open data? Keynote speaker Beth Blauer, the Executive Director for the Government Excellence Program at the Johns Hopkins University, shared how access to data — or a lack of it — can have deeply personal consequences.
It was Blauer’s experience as a lawyer turned juvenile probation officer that inspired her to improve how the government shares data. As a juvenile probation officer, she was required to make critical, life-altering decisions for her clients with very little data or context about their lives and experiences, beyond what she could glean at a brief intake interview. She saw how a failure to ask the right questions and share data between departments severely limited access to justice for at-risk youth. This continuously resulted in poor outcomes with incredibly high stakes for families, and ultimately took a major toll on public trust of the justice system. For Blauer and other advocates, open data became a basis for engagement and public sector transparency, leading to improved access to justice for some of society’s most vulnerable communities.
Open data is starting to improve life in Ontario as well. One CODS17 session explored how Employment Ontario’s (EO) interactive dashboards are changing work processes in the Ministry of Advanced Education & Skill Development’s Employment, which operates EO. Sharing data about EO locations, programs and the communities they operate in is improving matches between people looking for work with potential employers. This is also enhancing business planning for service providers. For EO, public and community engagement has been critical to ensuring that data is not only available and reliable but usable for a broad audience with varying technical skills. This input has resulted in dashboards that allow data to be searched, filtered and compared easily. By adopting an open data approach, EO has enhanced accountability, innovation and civic engagement while ultimately helping more people find the right jobs.
These efforts are part of Ontario’s Open Government Initiative, which is “about creating a more open and transparent government for the people of Ontario.” Right now, this is a majorly untapped area for the province’s justice sector. A review of the Ontario’s data catalogue reveals hundreds of datasets that have the potential to inform preventative or proactive access to justice responses. Current open datasets capture a range of topics including alternative dispute resolution in child protection cases, law library usage and microloans for low-income women entrepreneurs.
Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) is also working on a range of modernization initiatives: for example, since 2016 they have posted criminal case proceeding dashboards, which are developed by the Ontario Court of Justice Criminal Justice Modernization Committee in collaboration with the Modernization Division’s Analytics Branch. These dashboards provide key information about the progress of criminal cases at Ontario Court of Justice court locations, from the bail phase onwards. The dashboards offer a provincial snapshot of case performance and enable the comparison of courthouses with a similar volume of cases.
This wealth of public data represents a powerful tool in improving access to justice — one that could help break down public perceptions of opacity and exclusivity, and introduce more transparency and trust. In her keynote, Blauer encouraged public institutions to evaluate their performance based on public perception. Open data could provide a critical next step toward the culture-shift that is needed for us to realize meaningful and lasting improvements in access to justice.
Openness can be intimidating. But we have little to gain by remaining closed.
Sabreena Delhon is the Manager of The Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG). Follow her @SabreenaDelhon.