A Court Without People – or Judges

As we’ve often heard the future of practice can be found in technology, but it can also be found in the past. A review of some of the legal stories this week provide some ideas of how things can be transformed.

At a recent conference in New Jersey, a bunch of American judges heard about the future of court houses without the court house. Trials will be virtual, they heard, and hearings will be done with videos. Court appearances for most minor matters will be more like online banking than 12 Angry Men. At a car accident, a camera at the intersection will identify drivers using facial recognition and send them a speeding ticket on their smartphone, even before help arrives.

The digitization of law is not without problems though. Link rot creates a perennial problem for legal research, and many lawyers still drag their heels in adopting technology. But if the court is releasing judgments online or requiring e-filing, even these lawyers will have to come up to speed.

Even when an adjudicator is involved they may no longer be only judges. Marcus Gee of The Globe recently describes the magistrate system in England, where non-lawyers conduct case management of long dockets to help provide triage in the legal system. Although the comparable position of Justice of the Peace exists in Canada, these English magistrates are part-time non-paid volunteers, and rarely have any professional legal experience. The 650 year history of magistrates in England is used to justify the practice, where they draw on their considerable life experience in dealing with cases. Magistrates have access to legal counsel to obtain opinions where needed.

These low-tech solutions are often overlooked because lawyers perceive themselves to be the ultimate gatekeepers of the legal system. A diversified approach, including innovation but also institutional best practices from other jurisdictions, could help with the back log that Canadian courts currently face.

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