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How COVID-19 helped push Ontario's low-tech justice system into the 21st century

Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey is set to announce sweeping new technological changes to the province's justice system today, CBC News has learned.

More virtual hearings and a switch from paper to digital files are 2 changes on the way to boost efficiency

Toronto's Old City Hall courthouse is one of the busiest in Ontario. It has essentially been shuttered since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey is set to announce sweeping new technological changes to the province's justice system today, CBC News has learned.

The COVID-19 pandemic has essentially ground the wheels of justice to a halt in Ontario, adding to an already backlogged court system.

But the health crisis will now help usher in significant technological changes to boost efficiency, including more virtual hearings and a switch from paper to digital files, according to both Downey and the Criminal Lawyers' Association (CLA).

The CLA is Canada's largest criminal law organization, with about 1,600 members.

"We're just getting started. We really need to modernize the system all the way through. COVID was the catalyst that allowed us to move forward 25 years in 25 days," Downey told CBC News.

Ontario's courts are set to reopen July 6, provided the public health guidelines allow it.

A notice posted on the front doors of Old City Hall courts advising only urgent matters will be heard. (Jasmine Seputis/CBC News)

Courthouses and courtrooms will be fitted with Plexiglas barriers, physical distancing markers and hand-sanitizing stations.

But the biggest changes rolling out in the coming months appear to be an increased use of video-conferencing feeds to conduct non-jury trials, some bail applications and to set dates for trials.

"We have the technology out there. We've spent $1.3 million getting laptops, digital recording devices, VPNs [virtual private networks], allowing trials by Zoom. This is happening now, and it's a matter of expanding," Downey said.  

He says about 300 Ontario courtrooms have already been outfitted to hold virtual trials, where a judge would be in the room and lawyers and witnesses could join in remotely.

In the coming months, he says, court files will also start being digitized.

As it stands, Ontario's courts still rely primarily on paper records and fax machines to share information.

"When COVID hit, it really made the state of the justice system explode, because the paper-based system that we've all lived with for so long was just not sustainable," Downey said.

Doug Downey, Ontario's attorney general, says the COVID-19 pandemic has been the catalyst for an effort to modernize the justice system. (Keith Whelan/CBC News)

CLA president John Struthers says the association has worked closely with the province to modernize the justice system.

"The phoenix that will rise from the ashes of this situation will be a much better creature," he told CBC News.

"We have to be able to leverage the technology and ability to make the system much more efficient than it has been in the past."

Move to permanent use of more technology

Downey will unveil some of the technological changes to the CLA in a virtual town hall meeting this morning. 

Geoffrey Morawetz, the chief justice of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, and Lise Maisonneuve, the chief justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, will also participate in the online meeting.

"The CLA has been doing so much great work ... giving advice on how to change the system. We're modernizing, and it's affecting everyone," Downey said.

In an effort to keep some court matters moving during the pandemic, there have already been some seemingly small — but previously unthinkable — changes to the system.

John Struthers, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, says the court system needs to be more efficient. (Submitted by John Struthers)

While the province has been largely locked down, court officials have allowed for some video or phone hearings to deal with bail applications and guilty pleas for a range of criminal offences.

But, the CLA and the provincial government both agree, it's time for a larger, more permanent use of technology in the court system.

The CLA says video feeds into courts would potentially allow those with compromised immune systems to participate in legal proceedings without setting foot in a courtroom.

That could include lawyers, accused people, witnesses or even judges.

It's expected video feeds will also enable defence lawyers, Crown attorneys and judges to hammer out pretrial legal issues remotely.

Until now, those meetings were held at courthouses, inside a judge's chambers.

Struthers says any video-conference hearing that involves "any substantive change to a charge, or a statement on an allegation," will be made "fully public."  

He said he recently participated in a murder sentencing by virtual hearing, and members of the press were notified and able to monitor the proceedings.

Both Downey and the CLA also say the evidence police and prosecutors gather for criminal prosecutions will likely switch to digital file sharing.

Up until now, it was physically handed over at court appearances. It often included reams of paper documents as well as USB sticks and CDs.

Tech could improve physical distancing

The switch to virtual hearings and the digitization of court files is expected to simplify and expedite proceedings.

It could also reduce crowding in courthouses

Pre-pandemic, it was common to see dozens of accused people, their lawyers, Crown attorneys and court staff packed shoulder to shoulder in small, aging courtrooms as they waited their turn to set dates for trials or arrange for proposed case resolutions.

"By definition our courts are a congregation, and that's not what we're supposed to do anymore," said Struthers.

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The CLA is also pushing for enhanced video communication between jails and courts. 

"The more you have administrative appearances by video, it reduces transporting accused to court, reduces transport personnel and limits the dangers of people moving around. There's more control of the environment," Struthers said.

After the Ontario government locked down the province, calling cards were issued to inmates so they could contact their lawyers using cellphones.

Before COVID-19, they had to line up at pay phones in jails to make collect calls, and only to another landline, or lawyers had to travel to jails to meet their clients — a process the CLA says was clumsy and costly.

COVID-19 adds to case backlog

By last December, Ontario's auditor general revealed the number of criminal cases awaiting resolution had grown to about 114,000.

Struthers says the COVID-19 shutdown has added approximately 30,000 more cases to the backlog.

He hopes the use of video technology could help shrink that number.

"If there's a judge in Thunder Bay, for instance, who isn't busy on a certain day, they could preside over a trial in Toronto or Ottawa," he said.

Downey, the province's attorney general, says he supports that type of change, but it would be up to court officials to implement.

"It's my job to make sure the technology is there, and the chief justices manage the scheduling and some of the resources."

The CLA says trials where the credibility of a witness or an accused is at stake, as well as other complex trials, will continue to be held in traditional courtroom settings.

About the Author

John Lancaster

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

John Lancaster is a senior reporter with CBC News focusing on investigative and enterprise journalism. His stories have taken him across Canada, the US and the Caribbean. His reports have appeared on CBC Toronto, The National, CBC's Marketplace, The Fifth Estate-and of course CBC online and radio. Drop him a line anytime at john.lancaster@cbc.ca.

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