Don’t turn back, but don’t stand still. Work with justice system partners to share best practices, figure out how to make the system work better for the people who need it to work for them, and how to mitigate the unintended side-effects of change.
That sums up – very briefly – the recommendations in the final report from the Canadian Bar Association’s Task Force on Justice Issues Arising from COVID-19, presented to the Association’s annual general meeting on Feb. 17
The task force, established in April 2020, drew together representatives from CBA Sections and committees, its partners in the justice system and other stakeholders in the legal profession to look at the ways the justice system is addressing the upheaval to its traditions and methods in response to the pandemic.
The report makes 18 recommendations setting out actions to be taken by the justice system as a whole, by federal, provincial and territorial governments, and by the CBA itself in order to lay a firm foundation for a more modern system that works with and for all of those who use it.
Project Management 101 teaches that for a project to succeed it needs a champion. While the project manager is concerned with details, the champion is the influencer who can maintain the enthusiasm about the project at high levels, and see that approvals and funding come as needed. That’s why Recommendation #13 calls for the federal government to appoint a Justice Innovation Champion to work with federal, provincial and territorial governments and lead the permanent implementation of changes.
Recommendation #14 calls on federal, provincial and territorial governments to get serious about making the kinds of investments necessary to pull the justice system fully into the 21st century, with the equipment, software and training people need to succeed. Right now justice spending is just a small proportion of government budgets, but unresolved justice issues show up in other ledgers – health-care costs, social spending, unemployment insurance. Putting the money into justice will save it elsewhere.
Recommendation #15 renews a call made in earlier CBA reports about access to justice and the future of the legal profession: creating a central repository for data – a Professional Centre for Expertise and Information. The Canadian legal profession does not collect data about itself, which makes it challenging to know whether anything is changing, let alone progressing. Data collected by the Centre would inform future decisions about triage or online dispute resolution, or other innovations.
The report also recommends polling not just the people who work in the system, but those who use it, to make sure it is working for them. Recommendation #11 says courts, tribunals and dispute resolution bodies should talk to self-represented litigants to determine the impact changes have had on their ability to navigate the system successfully.
One overlying message of the report is that whatever changes are made, they must acknowledge and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable – self-represented litigants, and also people who lack the technology, or the literacy, to deal with a justice system that has moved online. Changes need to enhance access to justice, not inhibit it.
For years the CBA has been calling for modernization. We’ve seen slow, incremental changes, though there never seemed to be time or money for large-scale improvements until COVID-19 made them necessary. The task force report asks the country’s justice system partners to put their minds to improving on the changes of the past year, and seeing what more can be done.
CBA President Brad Regehr and Past President Vivene Salmon were co-chairs of the Canadian Bar Association Task Force on Justice Issues Arising from COVID-19.