Stuck in the 20th century // Opinion

Ontario was once a beacon of technological innovation in law. Now, we’re falling laughably behind

By Joan Rataic-Lang

On Friday December 7th, 2012


As a law librarian in Ontario, I have long felt proud to be among the inventors and early adopters of technology who have propelled this profession forward. But I now feel like too much time has passed since those days of innovation.

My early days in the mid-1980s were particularly inspiring. When what eventually became LexisNexis Quicklaw grew out of a Queen’s University project in the late 1960s and hit the market in the 1970s, it changed everything. We had to learn to string together legal search terms via a mystifying search syntax to pull case law out of seemingly thin air. But all of a sudden, timely, unreported decisions were available to anyone with a subscription. Legal research was no longer confined to the limitations of print materials. Then the Quicklaw paradigm inspired the creation of Westlaw Canada, putting a myriad of legal information at everyone’s fingertips.

Later, The Globe and Mail introduced InfoGlobe, the world’s first electronic full-text newspaper database. Previously, we relied on out-of-date paper indices at libraries to do newspaper research. But with InfoGlobe, a wealth of up-to-date information was available with a keystroke from your desk. As a different kind of information became available, impromptu, ultra-current, more personal business research became the norm. A lunch with a potential client would go that much smoother because a lawyer could easily dig for background information in advance. Librarians and lawyers quickly recognized those developments for what they were: tools that would help them do their jobs better. Using those tools soon became essential.

And then Canadian-driven innovation began to lag. In the U.S., PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and LexisNexis CourtLink came into use in the late 80’s and early 90’s. They offered lawyers south of the border instant access to court documents.

There is no Canadian equivalent. Westlaw Canada Litigator provides limited electronic access to some court documents, but is not comprehensive and only available where the judge’s decision has already been reported. Anyone wanting to find a decision that isn’t electronically available from one of the publishers has to take whatever information they have to the court, have the file pulled from storage and then hope a transcribed copy of the reasons exist.

When I started working at the Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA), I was surprised that everyday vital information as basic as door sheets or court lists was not available electronically. I could see the amount of time wasted by lawyers, students, process servers and self-represented litigants who spent many hours in lines scheduling motions, filing documents or obtaining court filings.

A simple task like finding out before which master and in which courtroom one was going to appear could not be done virtually until the TLA’s advocacy resulted in a limited selection of lists being supplied to us and posted on our website. Even with the positive response these lists have received, we are still pleading to receive the complete set of court lists to improve our service.

Canadians used to be on the cutting edge. Do we want the practice of law in Ontario to fall even further behind other jurisdictions, simply because that brave experimental spirit has died, or worse, been killed by the weight of bureaucracy? I read last summer that some Indiana courts are testing digital video as the official record of court proceedings — and Kentucky has been doing this for years. In Ontario, meanwhile, we wait in line to get the simplest of information. The disparity in effective use of technology in the practice of law here compared to other jurisdictions is getting worse as the years pass. We need to return to fostering new ideas, thinking creatively and taking risks in this profession.

Joan Rataic-Lang is the library manager and executive director of the Toronto Lawyers Association.

Illustration by Courtney Wotherspoon