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  • Writer's pictureDouglas W. Judson

Moving Justice Sector Modernization from Platitude to Practice

This column appeared in the newsletter of the Ontario Bar Association's Young Lawyers' Division |

Recently I attended an event where a group of jurists were asked about their thoughts on the potential for technology to improve our courts. The responses were remarkably underwhelming. While the panel rightly pointed out that courts are dependent on the wisdom of governments to make (long overdue) investments to improve court administration, their obiter missed the mark – each speaker seemed more interested in how certain tech tools and applications make the work of judges easier rather than how technological solutions are necessary to facilitate efficient and accessible courts. Somewhere, Statler and Waldorf chortled from a balcony.

To be sure, this type of candid dialogue with the bench helps to soften the judicial brow for newly-minted advocates and provides useful insight into the expectations and needs of adjudicators for those preparing submissions. Upstarts and wannabes like me are grateful for it.

But for new lawyers who were drawn to law to use their skills to make a difference and now find themselves staring down a court system frozen in a mid-90s mannequin challenge, the lack of vision and buck-passing from authority figures in our professional circles is discouraging. We care deeply about our clients’ problems and are committed to advancing their interests to the best of our abilities, but it is frustrating to be hindered by antiquated structures and protocols and the perceived antipathy of some elders to better ways.

Too often the prevailing legal culture around technology and reform reads as one of resignation and defeatism. Where a new idea or platform emerges for improving legal services, our welcome wagons are circled and saddled with skepticism. Worse, lawyer ambivalence about reform also has a tendency to morph into fear (as seen during the profession’s acrimonious debate in Ontario about alternative business structures for the delivery of legal services, wherein Team Status Quo took home the gold).

If change is inevitable, our risk averse ilk herald it as messianic, sweeping, and imposed, rather than something that could be constructive, adaptive, and participatory. Our deliverance needn’t be bought by revolution or blank cheque. While our profession’s chiefs wait for Godot, creative avenues for innovation are already taking shape within the legacy structures of our profession and society.

Some of the lowest-hanging fruit can be found where it is possible to leverage a traditional structure or unconventional partnership to better meet a need for legal service or improve justice sector efficiency. For instance:

  • The leadership of Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program (LPP), which recently earned an extended lease on life, has leveraged Ryerson’s success as a university-based innovation incubator to launch the Legal Innovation Zone. LIZ is a co-working space for people and ideas that aim to improve the justice system and legal services.

  • TAG (The Action Group on Access to Justice) recently adopted a consumer-based view of legal services and explored whether access to legal resources could be facilitated through Ontario’s existing network of public libraries. Libraries are an intuitive point of access to information by the public. By challenging the traditional supplier-driven market for legal services, TAG hopes it can ameliorate some unmet legal needs.

  • The University of Calgary has taken innovation in family law services in-house. One of the city’s senior law practitioners has set up a family law incubator, which is slated to open its doors in 2017. The initiative is responsive to the growing numbers of people who cannot afford family law services in the province. This triple bottom line solution aims to employ reasonably-priced lawyers and articling students who will drive innovation in family legal services in a tech-enabled environment.

The common thread between these initiatives is that none of them have waited for judicial anointment or regulatory overhaul to move ahead, and each has adopted a user-based approach to solving problems in the justice sector.

Yet, each of these initiatives is also largely confined to the realm of private practice or providing legal information. Their challenge will be whether the broader legal industry will follow their lead, or if their progress will be waylaid by institutions unwilling to bring to bear the same incremental creativity to modernize their functions in the justice system.

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