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Justice system to push further into digital age after pandemic, says Downey

'We’re really just getting started. There’s just so much to do to get the system in a spot where it’s meeting the needs of the average Ontarian,' says attorney general
2020-02-27 Doug Downey crop RB
Attorney General Doug Downey, who is also the MPP representing Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, is shown in a file photo. Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

If the past 16 months have proven anything it’s that change can happen, even in the justice system with its notoriously slow wheels, Ontario’s attorney general has found.

“I’ve learned that all the justice partners can work together quickly to solve challenges,” says Doug Downey, the MPP for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte who has been carrying the justice file throughout the pandemic. “I think pre-pandemic there were some structural barriers to being able to move this fast.”

The attorney general for Ontario points to a host of new processes implemented in the justice system as a result of the pandemic that have helped to do away with paper and digitalizing processes that now does things like help bring the courts into home offices.

Dial-a-court, e-filing and e-Intake all seem to have come in at the speed of light to a system that Downey earlier described as operating in another century, and some aspects from early in another century.

“Most of them are going to stick,” Downey tells BarrieToday of the changes. “We’re putting real dollars into it. We’re putting in the computer programs, the hardware, the software, and we’re changing processes to allow it to remain.”

And he promises there’s more yet to come.

Remote courts, which allow participants and observers to sign in through a computer or a hybrid mix of in-person and online hearings, are continuing to develop with the ongoing building of the system, which includes equipping more courtrooms, he says.

The e-Intake digital platform piloted in Barrie and Orillia two years ago, allowing police officers to file criminal charges electronically, has been gradually rolled out elsewhere in the province. It is designed to allow a seamless flow of information between police and the courts, again meant to cut back on paper.

“We’re taking some of these pieces that we know work and we’re expanding them. And the digital management system as well, it’s the second piece. ... There’s better ways to do things. There’s absolutely no reason to do the old paper-based way.”

And maybe even fax machines will become a thing of the past.

Downey also talks about how the rules of civil procedure still referred to the movement of information by telegraph. That’s since been replaced with the ability now to email documents.

One of the supporting features is the introduction of CaseLines, which is a cloud-based document-sharing and storage e-​hearing platform for remote and in-person court proceedings being rolled out provincially.

He points to the provincial tribunal system, which is getting a $28.5-million boost with a particular focus on the Landlord and Tenant Board. With 80,000 to 100,000 files per year, it’s considered the largest.

“It will improve the experience for landlords and tenants with issues that existed pre-pandemic. This is a fundamental change that I wanted to do anyway,” says Downey, adding that he had earlier struck a deal with his counterpart in British Columbia to adopt their system that has been in use for about five years.

And while the jury is still out on recent discussions about whether juries are actually necessary for civil trials, Downey says there’s been some advancement on the whole jury recruiting and picking process, allowing for pre-screening online.

The seamless program is intended to eventually permit email communication for those who have been summoned for jury duty.

Justice centres, which bring together legal, health and social services to address the issues individuals are facing, are being established outside of the courtroom. Simcoe County doesn’t yet have one, but Downey suggests we stay tuned.

“I’ve been talking to our police chief about the concept and there’s some real appetite for it in Barrie, so we’re having that conversation,” he says.

And then there’s the issue of backlogs  a pre-existing issue that’s been exasperated by the pandemic in criminal, civil and family cases. 

Downey says the first thing to do is measure the extent of the problem.

There’s been some movement to mitigate the number of cases queuing up to be heard with the technological developments and remote hearings. There have also been some initiatives to clear out cases where possible.

“We made some adjustments early on, because we knew there was going to be some challenges there,” he says.

Crown attorneys, for instance, were given the go-ahead to exercise their discretion allowing those charged with impaired driving as a first offence to plead out, often in exchange for a careless driving charge.

Downey says he’s confident the backlog in criminal courts is manageable. Meanwhile, the priorities for the civil courts and jury trials still have to be established.

Every area of law, he says, has seen some structural and content changes and not only will the justice system not revert to what it was pre-pandemic, it continues to push forward.

“We’re not stopping,” says Downey. “We’re really just getting started. There’s just so much to do to get the system in a spot where it’s meeting the needs of the average Ontarian.”

He refers to the auditor general’s report indicating that the system was heavily reliant upon paper. Now, he says, instead of relying on paper for 80 per cent of the material, some areas are seeing 80 per cent of the filings performed electronically.

“There really are some really big pieces that have been ignored for way too long. We just have to keep innovating and not just talking about these things,” said Downey.

“There’s no reason to go back.”