COVID-19 Forces Ontario Courts to Embrace New Technology
Despite the horrific medical, economic, and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive society-wide efforts to reduce the virus’s spread have accelerated certain positive changes. For example, the City of Toronto has launched several cycling initiatives which will help reduce collisions involving vulnerable road users for years to come, according to safety activists and some experienced Ontario lawyers in the personal injury field.
Another example comes from the Province of Ontario’s court system. For years, Ontario’s courts have struggled to adopt new technologies that can reduce backlogs and improve access to justice. Prior to the pandemic, nearly all proceedings and filings occurred in-person, and the paper-based system relied heavily on fax machines and other antiquated technology.
The pandemic has forced the provincial government enact changes. In June, Attorney General Doug Downey announced a shift toward virtual hearings and digital filings. There has also been increased use of video conferencing to conduct non-jury trials and other proceedings.
“We’re just getting started,” Downy told the CBC. “We really need to modernize the system all the way through. COVID was the catalyst that allowed us to move forward 25 years in 25 days.”
Many experienced Ontario lawyers seem to agree.
“The phoenix that will rise from the ashes of this situation will be a much better creature,” said Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA) president John Struthers, also to the CBC. “We havee to be able to leverage the technology and ability to make the system much more efficient than it has been in the past.”
There is hope that the move to new technology can address not only the new backlog created by the province wide shutdowns, but also the existing backlog affecting jurisdictions throughout Ontario.
“If there’s a judge in Thunder Bay, for instance, who isn’t busy on a certain day, they could reside over a trial in Toronto or Ottawa,” Struthers said.
As with all significant changes, there is concern that certain vulnerable populations could be negatively affected. Not all Ontarians have easy access to the internet, or even a phone. Action must be taken to ensure that all members of the community have access to the justice system when they need it.
However, it appears that most experienced Ontario lawyers support the technological upgrades and are eager to see them made permanent.
“When COVID hit, it really made the state of the justice system explode, because the paper-based system that we’ve all lived with for so long was just not sustainable,” Downy said.
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