Ontario’s justice system will continue to push forward and modernize beyond the rapid transformations forced by the pandemic, Attorney General Doug Downey told the Empire Club of Canada on Thursday.
During the lunchtime virtual meeting, Downey talked about some of the advancements made in the province’s justice system since emergency measures were enforced in March to ensure it could operate safely.
“It wasn’t long before capacity was expanded to conduct 100 per cent of proceedings involving a person in custody” and advancing to remote hearings, said Downey, who is also the local MPP for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte. “Behind the scenes, we were making targeted investments to update technology in a sector where fax machines were still an acceptable way of doing business.”
The initiatives included remote court access, the new use of digital signatures and service by email, all of which are now becoming permanent staples of the system.
As a result, he said, the system has become stronger by becoming more accessible and more resilient.
“We really did rely on fax machines, millions of pages of paper, and technology that was just slightly better than Morse code to share information,” he said, adding that just two days ago the word ‘telegram’ was replaced by ’email’ in a civil rule.
Within months, the old paper-based system has been modernized to allow for online filing of more than 450 different documents.
As a result, 95 per cent of civil proceedings are filed online and more than 70 per cent of family matters.
Information about court cases are now available online, meaning people don’t have to line up at the courthouse to gain access. And a platform to power online and in-person hearings was also adopted.
Last June, the changes allowed 20,000 people to log into an online Superior Court hearing to witness a judge deliver a sentence in a high-profile case.
In September, the Superior Court reported 50,000 hearings had been conducted virtually.
The lesson, Downey said, was to not just address yesterday’s issues, but to look at solutions for tomorrow’s sustainability and resilience and to not be afraid of change.
He also suggested adopting a design for a courthouse implementing some of the customer service elements available in an airport.
Or creating an app that allows the user to schedule a court appearance from a cellphone.
“The pandemic showed us, in stark terms, how far behind Ontario’s justice system had fallen,” he said. “Now we know better, and we’ll do better. In this new approach, justice accelerated means justice delivered.”
During a question period, he pointed to Ontario’s tribunals, which were largely shut down after the COVID-19 crisis and prevented normal interaction. Downey said he’s struck a deal with British Columbia’s attorney general to adopt its four-year-old online tribunal system for $1, provided Ontario takes care of the updates.