Most of the problems that plague the justice system could be resolved if it were to wholeheartedly embrace technology, say a series of reports produced by legal insiders.
The recommendations, contained in a trio of task force reports released Wednesday, said that all court documents ought to be filed and accessible online and that Internet advice services should be available to provide answers to the public's questions at any time of day or night.
Courthouses ought to remain open longer and issue annual reports on their activities, the task forces said, while legal insurance should be promoted so that individuals will not be crippled by sudden, immense bills.
The task force members were drawn from the legal profession, government and judiciary and operate under an umbrella group, the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. In combination, they represent a major thrust by the entire justice system to come to grips with the high costs and complexity of traditional litigation as well as growing public mistrust.
"While technological innovations are transforming much of modern life, they appear to be bypassing the justice system," one report observed.
It called for a massive "national Internet justice portal," which would provide access and user-friendly links to every tributary of the system – from government justice ministries and legal aid plans to community legal organizations and academics.
The task forces identified the need for a sweeping cultural shift that would change a justice system that is lawyer-oriented into one where individuals act as their own lawyers and resolve their problems independently.
"Put simply, we need to focus more on those who use the system and less on those who work within it," one group said
This change in culture would embrace a "triage" system in which judges quickly isolate cases that are easily resolvable, settling them or directing them to mediation services. It would also feature interactive court forms with simple, question-and-answer prompts that self-represented litigants could use.
One task force recommended the development of courtrooms that can store and retrieve information electronically. "Jurisdictions should work toward the implementation of an e-court within an established time frame, including the ability of lawyers to request online motion and trial dates," it said.
That group emphasized that layer upon layer of rules has made the court system impenetrable to those who matter most – citizens.
"No new rules of court should be contemplated that do not contribute to the simplification of procedures and the overall improvement of access to justice," it said.
Judges can streamline justice by managing cases from the outset and settling as many preliminary matters as they can in mediation or settlement conferences, another of the groups said.
"Scheduling procedures should be put in place to allow for fast-track trials where and when they are appropriate or possible," it specified.
The authors deplored the fact that funding for a welter of community and government legal services has been unpredictable and engendered a patchwork of groups that operate in "silos" and compete with one another for scarce resources.
"If poorly handled, the response to new technologies can build walls between groups and encourage competitiveness and proprietary behaviour," it said. "If well-handled, the sharing of information about technological innovations can build collaboration that benefits the whole sector."
The three reports were prepared in conjunction with a fourth report – on the family law system – whose conclusions were obtained and published last month by The Globe and Mail.
The task forces warn that many people become outright mistrustful of the court system after they pay out vast amounts of money on litigation and end up with a mixed or unsatisfying result. Resolving cases quickly is sure to enhance public faith in the system, they said.
"Avoiding problems or the escalation of problems and/or early resolution of problems is generally cheaper and less disruptive than resolution using the courts," said one report.