Moving Justice Forward

Justice technology reform in BC

Moving Justice Forward

In April 2013, the then Chief Justices, Chief Judge, and Attorney General of British Columbia signed a memorandum of understanding (“MoU”) under the auspices of the Justice Reform and Transparency Act. That MoU defined a working relationship between the Ministry of the Attorney General (“MAG”) and the courts. Among other things, it committed the signatories to “developing and maintaining an accessible, modern, and effective judicial system in the Province of British Columbia that delivers timely, impartial, and open justice.” This was a significant step in acknowledging that not only should justice be done and be seen to be done, but that the experience of justice system users is an important aspect of delivering justice, and one for which the executive and the independent judicial branch have some overlapping responsibility.

The justice system is, of course, not immune from the effects of the pandemic, and public health advice initially limited courts’ ability to serve British Columbians. Limitation periods were suspended, and as with so many aspects of the pandemic, concern over matters of life and death resulted in profound challenge and the potential for injustice. A silver lining has been that as a result of the pandemic, and the resultant necessity of the MAG and the courts working together, the MAG and the courts now enjoy, in my respectful view, a much closer, more collaborative, and more innovative working relationship.

Currently, the MAG and judicial leadership has regular meetings to discuss operational issues and work to resolve them. These discussions have significantly improved the ability of government to respond not only to short-term pains related to COVID-19, but also long-standing concerns of the courts and government. It has resulted in improving access to justice through the adoption of “new” technologies and processes. I use quotation marks around the word new because, as an example, one of the more significant technological improvements was dedicated phone lines and conference phones for individual courtrooms, improved Internet services, and hardware refreshing — improvements long overdue, but realized in the context of the pandemic. All these pieces taken together reflect a paradigm shift that enabled the COVID response, and my hope is that they will continue to enable increased user-focus, and responsiveness to the needs of British Columbians in our justice system.

These immediate changes have also facilitated serious conversations about longer-term reform initiatives. Our Chief Judge is spearheading an initiative to reduce the need for prisoners to move around the province in sheriffs’ vehicles for court appearances thanks to improved videoconferencing. In addition, people with family law matters will likely no longer need to appear in a courtroom as their first step in Victoria, and soon Surrey, with future expansion anticipated to other registries. Instead, they will first be appearing virtually to work with family justice counsellors to narrow and define issues and areas of conflict, and to prepare their file.

We are also looking more generally at ways justice-users can resolve and triage their disputes before they appear in front of a judge. I hope for improvements that reduce unnecessary time off work, waiting for procedural matters, enabling remote access where appropriate, and allowing many issues to be resolved without court time. This will allow users, government, and the courts to save judicial, emotional, monetary, and other resources for more intractable issues.

These reforms sound simple; however, multiple stakeholders and jurisdictions have to work together to realize major reform. It is a pleasure to work with our courts at all levels, which are led by chief justices and a chief judge who are actively embracing important changes. It is a very exciting and challenging time to be involved with the justice system, and I am grateful for the patience of the Bar as we work through COVID-related challenges. The system will be stronger and better for our shared experience over the last year.

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