The process of digitizing the legal system in Ontario has been fraught with challenges and setbacks.
In 2011, Precedent Magazine detailed some of the efforts to modernize legal records, with the Integrated Justice Project dating as far back to 1996, intending to create a centralized online electronic filing and case management system. These unsuccessful efforts cost taxpayers an untold millions of dollars, without anything significant achieved.
For anyone working in the legal system in Ontario, the lack of technology has added additional cost to the public through unnecessary use of paper and countless delays due to an archaic system. It’s not uncommon for some of the busiest courts in the GTHA to actually “lose” files in the mountains of accumulating paper.
In recent years the pace has picked up, with the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) explicitly recognizing the need for innovation through the MAGModernization project. In November 2017, one of the important incremental steps taken was the launch of online filing of civil claims, which was followed in November 2018 with the online filing for joint divorce applications.
Change is finally here, it seems.
Starting Feb. 11, 2019, the Ministry of the Attorney General is launching what is called a “Digital Hearing Workspace (DHW),” which is an online document management platform allowing real-time access to electronic copies of materials. Although termed a pilot limited for the Commercial List, this is a Proof of Concept that is intended to be extended to the entire court system.
The Commercial List is in fact the ideal court to launch this system. Aside from the specialized substantive nature of the small court, it is a court that is already document intensive and largely digital already. The Commercial List already has a Practice Direction in place since 2014 for digital documents, including file naming conventions and format, and it is not unusual to submit documents to the court on a USB stick. The only real change here at the Commercial List is that the digital directories will be available to all parties online.
Not everyone has the pleasure of practicing in this court, but I can contrast it to the experience literally across the street and say that it is an entirely different way to practice law. Stacks of boxes no longer need to be dragged through the snow. Junior associates might be more involved in taking notes and assisting in a meaningful way in proceedings, rather than just being delegated to move a cart around. We might actually slow climate change by saving the acres of forests that are likely cleared daily just to service the legal industry.
Further information is expected early this month on the Court Services website.
Lawyers of Ontario rejoice. We may finally be able to join the 21st century.