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Courts scramble to modernize to keep the system working in a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Canada’s court system to operate as it never has before to adapt to the demands of physical distancing.

Paperwork is being replaced by electronic documents. Appearances are taking place over the phone or through video conferencing. Judges, lawyers and staff are trying to limit their time in the courthouse by working remotely from their offices or homes.


There is one silver lining, however: a justice system that has resisted the adoption of new technologies is now being forced to modernize. The result could be more efficient and streamlined operations once the pandemic emergency passes.

“Because of years of inaction and institutional reluctance to [modernize], the justice system is playing catch-up right now,” said Michael Spratt, a criminal defence lawyer based out of Ottawa.

“We’re really all scrambling to try to accommodate the flow through the justice system using technology that is decades out of date.”

In a 2019 report, Ontario’s auditor general found the province’s court system was still heavily paper-based and had done little to modernize since the turn of the century.

“There just really hasn’t been political will to devote the resources to that,” Spratt said. “There’s been lots of institutional resistance.”


Some lawyers say they worry that once the courts resume full service, there won’t be enough resources available to deal with the backlog — especially in criminal court.

“We were already overburdened to begin with and stretched to the breaking point,” Spratt said.

“If we don’t triage the system, if we don’t take a look at the public interest in proceeding with minor cases, and if we can’t streamline trials, we’re looking at a backlog that could have a cascading effect for months or years to come.”

The Supreme Court’s Jordan decision, which set hard limits on the time that can elapse between the issuing of charges and the start of trial, is not expected to be an aggravating factor as courts move to reschedule cases after the pandemic ends because the decision takes into account illness and extraordinary events, Spratt said.

But if the courts don’t take steps now to deal with a post-pandemic scheduling crunch, Spratt said, trial delays could violate the Jordan limits down the road.

Read Olivia Stefanovich’s full article: CBC

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