Ontario's new attorney general wants to modernize justice system

Ontario's new attorney general has his sights set on modernizing the justice system — a mammoth task more likely to happen in baby steps rather than with a big bang.

'I mean, really, we're not trying to put a man on the moon,' says head of the Ontario Bar Association

Yasir Naqvi, Ontario's new attorney general, wants to modernize the justice system — but he says it will be an incremental process. (CBC)

Ontario's new attorney general has his sights set on modernizing the justice system — a mammoth task more likely to happen in baby steps rather than with a big bang.

Yasir Naqvi, who took over the post from a now-retired Madeleine Meilleur in a cabinet shuffle in June, has spent the summer getting up to speed on his new file. He has already identified some priority areas, including how the courts can make better use of technology.

"What I am developing my thoughts around is how can we make the system more effective and user-friendly?" Naqvi told The Canadian Press in a recent interview. 

"I'm from a generation where technology is a way of living. Our justice system obviously is built on a very rich foundation of tradition. What I would like to do is find ways to introduce more technological solutions."

'Still working on quill pens and ink blotters'

Naqvi said he has already asked staff to look at whether electronic filing that was introduced for small claims court can be expanded to civil cases.

Naqvi hasn't practised law in nine years — he was elected to the legislature in 2007 — and said back then the entire system was paper based.

But in 2016, the state of technology in the courts in Ontario remains "deplorable," said David Sterns, president of the Ontario Bar Association. "I think they're still working on quill pens and ink blotters, actually," he joked.

I don't know why it's so difficult. I mean, really, we're not trying to put a man on the moon.- David Sterns, president, Ontario Bar Association

Technology and the courts has been a neglected portfolio for a long time, Sterns said, but he is "delighted" to hear Naqvi has identified it as an essential part of improving access to justice.

"I don't know why it's so difficult," he said. "I mean, really, we're not trying to put a man on the moon. There are examples of systems, there are other programs that can be looked to, there's technology that can be licensed."

The cost of modernization

The Liberal government has been approaching court modernization in a piecemeal way since its large-scale Court Information Management System project failed in 2013 to get off the ground after four years of work. The province lost $4.5 million when it decided to scrap the system that was supposed to enable online court services, including scheduling, and consolidate the ministry's three case tracking systems.

Incremental steps toward modernization include:

  • Putting next-day court dockets online.
  • Expanding the use of video conferencing. 
  • Filing small claims online.
  • An online service for parents to set up or change child support payments.

Naqvi plans to proceed in a similar step-by-step fashion. "We're a big province," he said. "So when you factor in the north and the south, the urban and the rural, there's diversity. The infrastructure is not alike across the province so one has to be mindful of that piece."

Making better use of technology to allow people to access certain services online is one of Naqvi's key goals.

Naqvi said he wants to ensure that as the courts modernize there are still traditional, paper options for people who want to access the system in that way.

So will Ontario ever see a fully paperless system?

"That's really looking into the crystal ball and I won't even try to answer that question."