Improving Access to Justice: Technological Innovations

Last December, I received a Jury Summons in the mail. I completed the required form, took a picture of it with my cell phone, and then emailed the image back to the address provided. It took me about five minutes to do that. Almost immediately I got a return email confirming receipt of my form and about two weeks later, I got an email indicating that the form had been processed. The entire transaction was handled without me leaving my home. Convenient and efficient for both me and, I hope, the person at the other end of the email.

My story is but a tiny example of the changes taking place in our justice systems. In fact, interactive electronic communications technology is transforming both the way we relate to our justice systems and the systems themselves.

Long ago (in the January 1984 issue of LawNow!), I attempted to project what our technology-enhanced legal system might look by 1994. I foresaw access to databases (Open government?). I thought we’d be using interactive TV for meetings (web conferencing?).  I expected we would be able to record TV programs for later viewing (we can!). And most important for public legal education purposes, I looked forward to being able to broadcast messages to a quarter of the population of Alberta. LawNow, only one of CPLEA’s websites, was accessed by over 400,000 people last year.  So I was sort of on track!

Where are these changes taking us? First, changes are enabling individuals to play a more active role in addressing their legal affairs. But we’ve overtaken those projections and then some. The legal system and related services are being transformed at an escalating rate. From the perspective of users of the system, changes are occurring regarding three of the most common complaints: cost, complexity, and unsatisfactory outcomes.

New forms of dispute resolution.

One of the most serious complaints about the current legal system is its adversarial nature. Litigation is seen as often increasing hostility between parties rather than resolving their conflicts. Fortunately, there is a major shift occurring in how we are resolving disputes in Canada. Parties are being encouraged, assisted, and sometimes even required, to try to settle at least some aspects of their claims before turning to the courts.  Some services put the parties in the driver’s seat to deal with the matters in dispute themselves.

Innovation labs are being established across the country to stimulate new ways of thinking about how we improve access to justice.One of the most sophisticated interactive legal services in Canada is operated by the Justice Education Society in British Columbia. Small Claims BC (www.smallclaimsbc.ca) helps parties deal with disputes online. ‘Jes”, a virtual assistant, is on hand to explain things orally and she’s backed up by an online chat as well as lots of explanation in text format that you can download. You can also phone ‘Jes’ or email her. A more limited service, Consumer Protection BC: Resolve Your Dispute (www.consumerprotectionbc.ca) offers an online way to deal with disputes that have reached the stage where a collection agency is involved. Services like these make it possible to negotiate an outcome that you are satisfied with while avoiding the cost and complexity of going to court. Of course, if you can’t settle your dispute, you can still go to court but at least you get the chance to resolve the conflict yourselves.

Finding better ways of resolving disputes is particularly acute in the case of family matters where escalating conflict has major impacts on the mental and physical health of parents and children. Brain research suggests that the toxic stress that builds as conflicts go unresolved has serious consequences for the development of children’s brains. Mediation services, sometimes offered without cost by government services, help parents reach an agreement that focuses on the wellbeing of their children and may help them avoid going to court. (In Alberta, see www.alberta.ca/family-mediation.)There are also a number of family law lawyers that practice ‘collaborative law” to help spouses reach a settlement based on their own priorities while maintaining relationships that can endure for the benefit of children or other family members. (See www.collaborativepractice.ca.)

Electronically-assisted Do It Yourself services

Changes in technology have also made it possible to think about entirely new ways of addressing the multiple and complex problems faced by litigants, victims, witnesses, and those who are accused of crimes.Increasingly, people are choosing to represent themselves in court. The National Self-Represented Litigants Project (www.representingyourselfcanada.com) provides a number of resources to help you carry out research, deal with opposing counsel, and conduct yourself in the courtroom. Community Legal Education Ontario’s Steps to Justice web site (www.stepstojustice.ca) helps you deal with many everyday legal problems, like collecting a debt.

MyLawBC (www.mylawbc.com) helps you address family matters, like making a Will or getting a divorce. This site helps you generate worksheets, action plans, and actual documents that you need. Family Law Saskatchewan (www.familylaw.plea.org) takes you all the way to filing relevant documents electronically.

Unbundled legal services

Maybe doing it all yourself isn’t for you. A variety of legal aid services exist across the country but the nature of the services and criteria for qualifying vary. Legal aid services in some jurisdictions are using apps to help people quickly determine if their problem is one that legal aid covers and whether they qualify financially for that help. (For example, www.legalaid.on.ca/en/getting/legalaidapp.asp). Law firms are also getting on side with innovative approaches. Some lawyers offer ‘packages’ or provide information on their websites to help you make a more informed decision about how to make good use of their expertise. Many lawyers will ‘unbundle’ their services, enabling their clients to do part of the job themselves. A pilot project was recently launched in Alberta (www.albertalegalservices.com) to recruit lawyers willing to provide specified services, like drafting a court document, that may be a necessary part of your litigation, but you do the rest.  Some lawyers may agree to provide on-going advice and coaching as you move through the legal system.

Behind-the-scenes innovations

Finding better ways of resolving disputes is particularly acute in the case of family matters where escalating conflict has major impacts on the mental and physical health of parents and children.  Less obvious to consumers of legal services are significant changes that are taking place behind the scenes. In many jurisdictions now, court documents can be filed electronically. Experiments are underway to co-ordinate records of proceedings in criminal courts and family courts. And a host of records traditionally generated through unco-ordinated and labour-intensive processes are now being electronically managed.

Changes in thinking about legal processes

Changes in technology have also made it possible to think about entirely new ways of addressing the multiple and complex problems faced by litigants, victims, witnesses, and those who are accused of crimes. Specialty courts couple non-legal interventions with judicial oversight. Domestic violence and drug courts bring together a variety of therapeutic and other services to assist families address the range of problems that criminal behaviour often exposes. Embedding legal processes in a more holistic approach to meeting the needs of the relevant parties offers the prospect of reducing conflict and setting people on a healthier path.

And that’s not all. Innovation labs are being established across the country to stimulate new ways of thinking about how we improve access to justice. Ryerson University established its Legal Innovation Zone (www.legalinnovationzone.ca) as a co-working space where entrepreneurs, lawyers, students, tech experts, government members and industry leaders can gather to share ideas and launch projects to improve the justice system and legal services.

..interactive electronic communications technology is transforming both the way we relate to our justice systems and the systems themselves.

Where are these changes taking us? First, changes are enabling individuals to play a more active role in addressing their legal affairs. In some cases, they may be able to DIY the complete job. In others, they may carry out certain tasks or stages in addressing their problem while using a range of professionals – accountants, mediators, lawyers, and judges – to bring the matter to completion. This holds the prospect of just-in-time and just-for-us justice that is cheaper, quicker, more convenient, and more flexible than traditional approaches. It is unlikely that these new processes and procedures will eliminate the need for traditional legal services or courts, but they will enable those processes to do what they do best – address complex or novel legal problems. This bodes well for addressing many of the everyday legal problems that we all face.

Editor’s Note

Because of the far-reaching significance of innovations in delivering legal services and legal information, LawNow has decided to launch a new Access to Justice column that will regularly update readers on developments in this area.   We hope both  inform our readers and engage them in discussion.  Please watch for this new feature.

Authors:

Lois Gander Q.C.

Lois Gander, Q.C. is a Professor with the Faculty of Extension, University of Alberta and serves as Vice-President of the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta

 


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