Recently I was invited to attend an information session on the e-disclosure pilot project that is about to get underway for a small number of police divisions in Toronto’s Metro North jurisdiction. While electronic documentation may seem like a 1990s innovation, its adoption by notoriously change-resistant lawyers (on both sides of the criminal bar) and technologically averse police officers, may genuinely herald a new era in the archaic field of criminal law.
Starting immediately, police from the pilot detachment (currently consisting of officers from Toronto’s 31 Division who are not tasked to special teams and rolling out to two more divisions shortly) will be entering disclosure data into computer terminals generating a single Adobe PDF file. The PDF consists of a series of categories or chapter headings that will remain consistent across all cases. So for example, “category 10” will always contain scanned copies of police notes. In every case under the new e-disclosure system counsel can simply click on category 10 to be instantly linked to these scanned images which can then be highlighted or have text notes affixed to them. Other areas of disclosure that are made up of typewritten text will be searchable. Scene of Crime photos (commonly known as SOCO) will be in a separate category provided in a low resolution format not suitable for enlarged printing but certainly clear enough to view full screen on your desktop in the samples I was provided.
The system is optimized for Adobe Acrobat 9 and the Toronto Police Service is using the paid “pro” version of the software to generate the e-disclosure files but they will be perfectly readable by the ubiquitous free version of Acrobat ensuring that lawyers will not have to invest in any expensive new technology (beyond your existing office computer) to access the materials.
Crown attorneys will be receiving the e-disclosure via USB keys to be transferred to their internal CIMS system while defence counsel will be handed the files on CDROM. Paper copies of disclosure for cases arising out of the pilot division will not be provided and you can bet that some old-timers and techno-phobes (crowns and defence alike) will not be happy to discover this. Other counsel are likely to hand their discs to their secretaries and immediately demand that the entire contents be printed out and organized the old-fashioned way but I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that most counsel will find the system to be a vast improvement after the initial jitters wear off.
It is hoped that the system not only reduces paper and costs but significantly shaves down the delay currently associated with waiting for disclosure — a leading cause of backlog within the court system. Some have even suggested that, in simple cases, complete disclosure could be provided digitally at the bail hearing stage mere hours after an accused’s arrest though that is not anticipated to be the case during the early stages of the pilot. As the system is rolled out across more divisions, it is anticipated that officers from multiple teams and in different detachments can simply upload their portion of an investigation from any local terminal to the master file dramatically speeding up the time it takes to have all notes and materials collated into a single e-brief. At present, to keep the file sizes down, rich multi-media such as video witness statements or 911 audio calls are not included in the PDF package but it is hoped that these will be rolled out in the future.
Training for crown attorneys is getting underway immediately with future sessions for the defence bar planned. These will be provided free of charge at the Toronto Police College.
Just a few weeks ago I was quoted in local newspapers discussing a case in which disclosure was provided on VHS cassette and here I am on the cusp of truly paperless disclosure. Maybe change is coming faster than I thought? Only time will tell.