January 4, 2021, marked exactly one year since the first published reports of a disturbing new virus in Wuhan, China.
That virus, COVID-19, has touched us all in the past year on personal and professional levels. We’ve all had to accept individual restrictions for the public good, and to adjust to new ways of doing things.
It’s also true that in the legal profession at least we’ve been able to find some silver linings in these trying circumstances. For example, the pandemic pressed the accelerator on justice system modernization that groups such as the CBA have been advocating for years. Why, in 2020, weren’t more courts and tribunals offering electronic filing or virtual hearings? Why were the justice systems and the legal profession caught so off-guard by the pandemic and the measures put in place to deal with it?
And how can we be better prepared the next time it happens?
Last April the CBA launched its Task Force on Justice issues Arising from COVID-19. It brought together thought leaders from within the CBA and from across the federal justice system to assess the immediate and evolving issues for the delivery of legal services resulting from the pandemic.
The task force’s work was guided by several important principles:
- Access to justice – the task force is focused on the people who seek justice and the ability of the justice system to serve them.
- Impact on self-represented litigants – whatever new measures are adopted, they must address the needs, concerns, safety and security of self-represented litigants while avoiding negative effects on them.
- Health and safety – the health and safety of all participants is paramount.
- Innovation, effectiveness and efficiency – this crisis has shown that the system needs meaningful reform in both the short and long term after years of being stretched to the limit.
- Sustainability – the focus is on innovative measures that will be sustainable and can be permanently implemented.
- Open courts – any new measures must respect the open courts principle.
- Coordination and communication among justice system partners – justice systems and legal professionals across the country and around the world are tackling many of the same issues – we should learn from each other.
- Investments and resources – it’s going to take both short- and long-term investment to address the issues and make the necessary changes
The overriding consensus after months of meetings and hearing from various experts and stakeholders is that there can be no going back. Not all changes work for everyone, and there are legitimate concerns, such as privacy considerations, when moving from a bricks-and-mortar world to an online environment where information is money; but it is imperative to make changes to maintain trust and efficiency in our justice system.
The task force will deliver its report at the CBA’s annual general meeting on Feb. 17, 2021. In the meantime, we will use this space to talk about some of the issues that arose during our months-long deliberations. We hope you will weigh in with your observations and your perspectives. After all, it takes a village to make a working justice system, after all.
CBA President Brad Regehr and Past President Vivene Salmon are co-chairs of the CBA Task Force on Justice Issues Arising from COVID-19.