TORONTO - Ontario's antiquated court system will inch toward the modern age, as the attorney general announced Wi-Fi for courthouses, jury summons via email or text and some online divorce filings.
The system remains largely a paper-based one, which has not thus far reacted quickly to adopt new — or even not-so-new — technologies, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said Wednesday.
"Our system is still very much a bricks and mortar system," he said. "The most advancement we've seen is we've moved from typewriters to desktops or paper filings to faxes. That's where we're starting."
The measures announced Wednesday won't see Ontario's courts catch up with how technology is used in every other realm of life, but they are foundational, practical steps, Naqvi said.
"I'm not claiming that Wi-Fi in all our courts by 2019 is getting us in the modern age," he said.
The measures being announced Wednesday include more digital options for the jury process by the fall of 2019. A public consultation is underway, exploring possibilities such as completing jury questionnaires online, and receiving jury summonses by email or text.
Starting in April, couples going through a joint divorce will be able to file applications online, which the government says will make the process easier for people during a stressful time.
The province has also recently set up an online service for people to update their child support agreements, helping them avoid trips to the courthouse and money on legal fees.
Access to justice is a particularly important issue in family law, where more than half of people are not represented by a lawyer, Naqvi said.
"That is challenging," he said. "It creates barriers and obstacles for them and it also slows down the system because they may not have all the right information available to them to access the system. We feel very strongly that technology can help in that better access."
Allowing lawyers to avoid attending court appearances to essentially have a judge rubber stamp a document would save lawyers time and save clients money, said the treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Right now, lawyers' offices heavily use technology — not so in court, Paul Schabas said.
"We exchange documents with lawyers on the other side electronically, we do all sorts of e-technology work with production of documents," he said. "It is odd when it comes finally time to file a lot of things you've got to print it all out."
Ontario will also be developing what it calls a "state-of-the-art" digital service for a pilot project in the spring that would give the judge, lawyers and parties in a case access to all of the documents in one place online.
"So instead of each party bringing their own boxes of the exact same information to court for a hearing, everyone will have a single, secure, quick point of access for all court documents," the government plan says. "It will enable people to edit and interact with documents, and store them for future use, reducing the need for millions of paper documents and unnecessary trips to the courthouse."
It's not the first time the Liberal government will have attempted such projects. Its large-scale Court Information Management System project failed in 2013 to get off the ground after four years of work. The province lost $4.5 million when it decided to scrap the system that was supposed to enable online court services, including scheduling, and consolidate the ministry's three case tracking systems.
A step-by-step approach has a better chance of success, Naqvi said.
"By doing it this way we're actually getting it done as opposed to just talking about it or trying to develop this massive system which may or may not work," he said.
To move the civil courts into the digital age, Ontario allowed small claims to be filed online in 2015, then it launched a pilot project at six courthouses to allow all civil claims to be filed online. Just days ago, that expanded provincewide and starting in May, people will be able to file other documents in civil cases, such as statements of defence, online.
Other parts of the plan include having inmates appear by video at more pre-trial appearances to save transportation costs and time, building an online dispute resolution platform for landlord and tenant conflicts, and a previously announced step to allow the resolution of traffic tickets online.