In December, I was asked to contribute to an episode of The Docket podcast (The Docket's Year End Extravaganza) to talk about a prediction, hope or wish for 2018. As I mused about what changes I wanted to see in our legal landscape, I couldn't help but come back to the funding of Legal Aid. This issue is a perennial problem for lawyers and accused people alike. The eligibility requirements for legal aid are so low that a large swath of people who make 'too much' money to qualify are left to represent themselves. On the other side, the rates at which Legal Aid pays lawyers often falls far below what is needed to properly prepare for a case. Lawyers consistently do work at a reduced price, or for free, in order to vigorously defend our clients.
That being said, I realize that having a giant boost to Legal Aid funding is not something that is likely to happen in 2018. So I settled on adding another, slightly more realistic wish that doesn't require the same costs or political will. My other wish was for improved technology in our courts. As I said in the clip (which starts at 37:45 if you want to listen), it baffles me that we can transfer property using an online portal, yet I am required to be there in person to ask for a routine adjournment in remand court. Our courts have not kept pace with technology: defence lawyers receive disclosure on CD's (try buying a new laptop with a disc drive), we have to fax correspondence to the Crown's office and wait for endless hours in court in order to address issues that could be done on consent and not in person.
As I recorded my clip, I started with my more reasonable wish and then moved on to the issue of Legal Aid funding. I added a comment that with all of the savings that could be made with updated technology could be funnelled towards Legal Aid funding. It was really meant to be a joke, but as I listened to Emilie and Michael's comments and thought about it some more, it actually makes sense: technology should be improving access to justice.
I am clearly not the first person to have made this connection: there are people working on apps to lower the cost of legal interactions and organizations such as "The Action Group" are working towards using tech for access to justice initiatives. But leadership needs to come from the Attorney General to realize that there are huge cost-saving opportunities that could be implemented through widely available technology. Allowing counsel to access disclosure online and to do routine adjournments through an online portal would be a start. Setting up e-mail addresses to so that we no longer have to fax things would be another welcome change. Allowing lawyers to file case law electronically instead of printing of piles of pages that are left to collect dust after submissions are over is a no-brainer.
It is time for courts to be more innovative about how we are modelling our systems. I once visited a MacDonald's for lunch while I was at courthouse out of town. I marvelled at the new touch-screen system to place your order. MacDonald's understands that it needs to serve its customers as efficiently as possible, and is thinking about ways to maximize that efficiency by using technology. Our courts are a totally different system, but are sorely behind in terms of creating solutions that ensure that people's time, money and energy are not wasted.
I stand by my assertion that with technological improvements in the courts and at the Crown's office, there would be a massive savings for the Attorney General, one that should go straight to robust funding of our Legal Aid system and better access to justice for all.