Are Design Flaws in the Court System Like Eye Drops?

The court system is designed by lawyers for lawyers for a bygone era. As technology develops and the numbers of self-represented litigants increase, the design flaws in our paper based court system becomes more apparent.

Recently, the Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the Honourable Heather Smith addressed this issue with the Toronto Star. Justice Smith stated that “there really is no difference walking into a courtroom at 361 University Ave than there was 40 years ago.” Justice Smith further adds that the way paper moves through the court system is madness. “Even digital files end up being turned into paper copies for filing, she pointed out. And then files get lost, leading to delays, while money is wasted on paper storage costs that are borne by the Ministry of the Attorney General. ‘I’m surprised that the public has been as patient as it is. It’s like stepping back in time’ Smith said.”

Presently, the current paper based system is like eye drops, designed without the client in mind and being redesigned by outsiders. The CBC recently ran an article about how students designed a plastic adapter that solves the problem of wasteful eye drops. “It’s not news to pharmaceutical companies — including Allergan, Merck, Pfizer and Canada’s Valeant — that have been the subject of multiple class-action lawsuits in the U.S. by patients who alleged they were compelled to purchase an unusable or wasted portion of each eye drop in multi-use containers, in violation of state consumer legislation.” To combat this, students circumvented the pharmaceutical companies instead of waiting for them to solve the problem.

To become a court of the future, we need to adapt to changes in technology. As Justice Brown stated in Bank of Montreal v Faibish, 2014 ONSC 2178, “Why should we be able to expect that treating courts like some kind of fossilized Jurassic Park will enable them to continue to provide a most needed service to the public in a way the public respects? How many wake-up calls do the legal profession and the court system need before both look around and discover that they have become irrelevant museum pieces?”

The failure of our governments to design a more seamless court experience has left a vacuum. Recently, the Ryerson Legal Innovation Zone launched the Family Law Portal. The Family Law Portal is a “free online service, start of a faster, simpler and more affordable approach to resolving separation and divorce issues.” The program asks users questions. It then provides users with information about types of documents to gather and aspects of the law. 

Ideally, our court system would integrate technology like the Family Law Portal into its design. For example, courts forms would become interactive. The user would answer questions and then the answers would be used to automate a court document that is then electronically filed. All along the way, the program would provide guidance to navigating the court system.

With the appointment of a new Attorney General for Ontario, I am hopeful that we will see changes to our outdated paper based system.



(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)



  1. As Lord Burnett of Maldon has observed of the lagging of courts to adapt technology in the UK: “In September last year, the Chief Justice of Papua New Guinea proudly showed me on his computer how he could access all relevant documents, evidence and submissions in every case in the High Court in Papua New Guinea and its appellate courts. We have much ground to make up.” Perhaps the new Attorney General could find some inspiration from both countries.