eJustice delayed is eJustice denied

Ontario’s mega-project to modernize our court system ended in mega-disaster. We need to be innovative and adaptable to keep up with all that technology has to offer
Ontario’s mega-project to modernize our court system ended in mega-disaster. We need to be innovative and adaptable to keep up with all that technology has to offer

Illustration by Brad YeoEarly in my articles I’d been dispatched to file a motion record at the court office before it closed. It was rush hour, the streets were gridlocked; I would have to get there on foot. I was running at full tilt, but leather dress shoe soles are slippery. Someone stepped into my path, I tried to cut left…

As I lay on the sidewalk, sweaty, dazed, my trousers — and ego — in tatters and wondering whether I had broken anything, I had my epiphany: “This is moronic.”
That was 10 years ago. Little has changed since then in the way documents are distributed. Today’s law students may avoid crash landings, but emergency courier duties remain a regular part of Ontario articles.

The case for technological innovation is irrefutable. Used properly, technology enhances access to justice by improving efficiency, increasing responsiveness, transparency and accountability, and reducing costs. It also has environmental benefits such as reducing paper use and greenhouse gas emissions. Other jurisdictions have transformed themselves to reap these rewards. So why hasn’t Ontario?

In fact, Ontario has tried. In the late ’90s, the Integrated Justice Project (IJP) was supposed to catapult the province to the forefront of eJustice. But the IJP failed. By the time of its demise in 2002, the IJP had produced little more than a few technology scraps, a $265-million bill and a bunch of lawsuits.

The fact is, mega-projects like this are prone to failure. They are expensive, complicated and notoriously hard to manage. Their lengthy development cycles are anathema to the technology sector. It’s okay to spend five years planning a new office tower (one can be fairly sure concrete will still be in use), but in the IT world such a timeline can mean a system is obsolete before it’s even deployed.

Compare Ontario’s experience to that of B.C., which also began an eJustice megaproject, but quickly recognized its mistake. With the goal of gradually building on smaller successes, it revised its approach to encourage local solutions and collaborative design.

B.C.’s successful Court Services Online program, which launched in 2005, enables province-wide electronic filing and access to documents, dockets and other information, all through a single web portal.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s courts are increasingly overburdened. But rather than rushing to fix everything at once with another centrally planned mega-project, Ontario should adopt the strategy that has led to success elsewhere. This means encouraging collaborative development of local solutions to local problems, under guidelines that ensure these can be refined, extended and integrated over time.

This approach is particularly appropriate for the legal system, which continuously evolves and occasionally changes abruptly. Smaller initiatives allow solutions to be deployed quickly and cost effectively, while minimizing disruption and risk of failure. And by addressing the most serious “pain points” first, technology can have an immediate, positive impact on the courts.

It would be nice to think that the province learned something from the IJP, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Ontario has continued to adopt the mega-project approach — with predictable results. The government’s almost complete loss of control of the scandalplagued eHealth (and its predecessor, Smart Systems for Health Agency) has led to more than $1 billion in wasted taxpayer money since 2002. According to Auditor General Jim McCarter, when it comes to electronic health records, Ontario remains “near the back of the pack” — just as with its justice system.

Ontario’s courts desperately need technology reform. But unless the focus is on getting it done right, we know what will happen: Ontario will end up on its ass again, wounded, embarrassed and unable to deliver.

At the end of the tech boom and on the cusp of the global recession, Greg Azeff left his insolvency practice to found CourtCanada Ltd. (courtcanada.com), a Toronto company that develops technology solutions for the litigation process.

Illustration by Brad Yeo