Justice in the After Times

Legal technology or human-centred design?

Justice in the After Times

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts around the world were forced to largely shut down, and then quickly pivot to using online tools to attend to urgent matters. Months later, there’s a growing consensus that it’s time to digitally transform the justice system, but will that really increase access to justice?

As a mainly online tribunal, the Civil Resolution Tribunal (“CRT”) stayed open and operating normally last year. Over its short history, the CRT’s jurisdiction has expanded to include strata, small claims, motor vehicle injury, and co-operative and societies disputes. From the beginning, the tribunal has been extensively co-designed with community legal advocates and their clients. This has led the CRT to focus on collaborative dispute resolution, with adjudication as a valued last resort. While the CRT offers mail, telephone, and (pre-pandemic) in-person services, over 99% of the approximately 20,000 disputes we’ve handled involved online tools.

The CRT is paperless. Most of our nearly 100 staff and tribunal members have always worked from home. Dispute resolution services, from applications, negotiation and mediation processes, uploading evidence, and receiving decisions and orders, are online. Aside from relocating some frontline staff to remote work, and supporting colleagues with sudden caregiving and other responsibilities, we didn’t have to adapt. Instead, we focused on the health, mobility, and economic impact of the pandemic on CRT users. We helped by waiving fees in cases of financial hardship, pressing pause on default orders, and extending deadlines through email requests.

The CRT collects qualitative and quantitative data on all aspects of our operations. We survey participants who go through the CRT process and ask them what they thought about it. Were they treated fairly? Was their dispute resolved quickly? Did they understand the process? Would they recommend it to others? These numbers have stayed stable over the past year, and we publish them monthly on the CRT website. We also track the number and kind of disputes, settlement rates, and timelines, among other things, and we’ve noticed a few changes as a result of COVID-19.

The CRT usually handles about 135 disputes per week. This number plummeted in late March, but has slowly  rebounded. Because we kept operating, we have no backlog, and are still resolving contested small claims disputes in a median of 59 days. Unsurprisingly, disputes about breaches of contract, especially forfeited deposits and cancelled events and services have increased. Strata disputes have also increased by about 25%, possibly due to greater use of shared facilities and proximity to neighbours as people work and study from home. This data helps us adapt our processes and resources to better meet public need.

Before the pandemic, community legal advocates helped the CRT accommodate the needs of people with health, mobility, economic and other access barriers. Now, many more of us are also experiencing these challenges, and the CRT has scaled to meet this increased human need. It helped that we offered online tools. But we stayed open because of human-centred design and the outcomes it brought; free, plain language legal information and tools through the Solution Explorer, simple fee waivers, free interpretation services, staff well-trained in mental health issues, cultural competency and customer service. Most importantly, a culture of collaboration, inclusivity, and respect.

It’s important to remember that technology is not a panacea, a cure-all for our access to justice woes, though it might have offered temporary pain relief for our COVID-related ones. Adding a technology interface to existing, inaccessible processes is not transformative, and can add further barriers. Building a flexible, resilient, and responsive justice system requires something that’s both much harder and much easier than legal technology. It requires fundamental system and culture change, co-designed and tested with those who need our public justice system the most.

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