You Can’t Modernize the Courts on a Shoestring

With technology investments, approved budgets quickly become historical artifacts as changing project requirements and unexpected turns lay waste to the best laid plans. While the answer isn’t to close your eyes and keep your wallet open, it surely can’t be the opposite – to limit funding to such an extent that viable paths to improvement or success are foreclosed before the first dollar is spent. Yet in a 2016 federal budget that forecasts a $30 billion deficit, a mere $1 million has been allocated to investment “in information technology infrastructure upgrades to safeguard the efficiency of the federal court system”.

To put that in perspective, a $30 billion deficit means Canada will be adding $1 million dollars to its debt load every 17 minutes. You can debate whether the spending levels or priorities in the budget are good or necessary, but you can’t argue with the fact that the amount allocated to modernizing the federal court system attaches a very, very, very, very, very low priority to the stated goal of making a “A More Efficient Federal Court System”.

Here’s the full text on the subject from the 2016Federal Budget:


Canadians expect a justice system that is accessible and efficient. The Courts Administration Service is an arm’s-length federal organization that provides support to the Federal Court of Appeal, the Federal Court, the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada and the Tax Court of Canada. Federal Courts judges prepare files, conduct hearings and write decisions at locations across Canada. Budget 2016 proposes to provide $7.9 million over five years to the Courts Administration Service to invest in information technology infrastructure upgrades to safeguard the efficiency of the federal court system. Budget 2016 also proposes to provide up to $2.6 million over two years on a cash basis to help relocate the Quebec City Federal Courts facility, thereby ensuring continued Federal Courts presence in Quebec City.

Of the $7.9 million to be allocated to this purpose over five years, $1M comes in year 1, $2M in year 2 and $3M in year 3.

Assuming limited opportunity to reallocate existing funds, this kind of financial outflow would suggest a likely pathway where:

  • year 1 funds and efforts are spent figuring out what to do
  • year 2 funds and efforts are spent starting to build “something”
  • year 3 funds and efforts are spent re-doing, re-vamping and re-thinking earlier efforts in order to get something functional out the door in order to ensure….
  • the remaining $1.9M available in years 4 and 5 can be directed to bug-fixes, training and operations instead of building.

Of course, this allocation of funds assumes successful project management and that efforts do not fall prey to the typical challenges of government IT projects. Oh…and let’s not forget that because we are talking federal courts, everything has to be perfectly bilingual.

Looking at courts and tribunals, and the governments that fund them, across the country, we don’t have to dig too far to find parallel stories. The need for modernization of court services infrastructure is apparent to anyone with passing familiarity with the system. Even among those working inside the system and wanting to see improvement, the reality of “tech” being a low priority is hard to escape. Consider this statement of the obvious, offered in the context of a CBC article on the Ghomeshi trial, from one of Canada’s more tech-friendly and forward looking justices:

Most courts don’t have the bandwidth or infrastructure to support video broadcasting, and it would be a costly venture, said Ontario Superior Court Justice Fran Kiteley, who is also the co-chair of the Canadian Centre for Court Technology.

If deciding among “improving the service at the counter so that people don’t have to stand there three or four hours, or improving the working conditions of the people behind the counter, or having more judges to get the cases to go faster … as opposed to the fibre optics that you have to do in order to let the public fully in the door — it’s not going to be a really challenging decision what you’re going to pay for,” she said.

When money comes to the courts in dribs and drabs, or when tech projects of any sort are stacked up against other priorities, it’s hard to see from where the opportunity for serious planning for transformative change will come.

My feeling?

My feeling is that the funds and the vision will necessarily need to come from the private sector.

In my next post, I’m going to explore some ideas and describe some of the new players capable of bringing change. If you can’t wait until then, I encourage you to check out the #legalX and RyersonLIZ websites. These Toronto-based legal tech incubators are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to private sector efforts to modernize legal practice, improve access to justice, and, yes, modernize the courts.


  1. Fantastic article Colin!

  2. Some added context to the challenges:

    In the 2015 Federal Budget, the CAS was allocated $19M over 5 years to support physical and IT security requirements. In its own year-in-review document, the CAS observed that “the announced funding addresses the security requirements of the Courts and CAS but other critical areas such as IT, judicial support systems and registry capacity still face serious program integrity issues.”

    In the same report, it states as follows:

    …In 2014–15, CAS continued to face significant financial challenges which impeded its ability to move forward on a number of essential initiatives and adversely affected its capacity to deliver fully on its programs. The impact of escalating non-discretionary expenditures associated with the increase in the number of multi-day hearings, increased workload, additional demands for services, unfunded judicial appointments, government-wide rules and legislative changes, various cost containment measures and inflationary pressures, eventually led to serious program integrity issues. In response to this challenge, CAS continued to work with central agencies and stakeholders with the objective of identifying viable, long-term solutions to its program integrity issues. However, the need for program integrity funding was not permanently addressed.