Improving access to justice: Technological innovations.

Author:Gander, Lois
 
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Last December, I received a Jury Summons in the mail. I completed the required form, took a picture of it with my cell phone, and then emailed the image back to the address provided. It took me about five minutes to do that. Almost immediately I got a return email confirming receipt of my form and about two weeks later, I got an email indicating that the form had been processed. The entire transaction was handled without me leaving my home. Convenient and efficient for both me and, I hope, the person at the other end of the email.

My story is but a tiny example of the changes taking place in our justice systems. In fact, interactive electronic communications technology is transforming both the way we relate to our justice systems and the systems themselves.

Long ago (in the January 1984 issue of LawNow!), I attempted to project what our technology-enhanced legal system might look by 1994. I foresaw access to databases (Open government?). I thought we'd be using interactive TV for meetings (web conferencing?). I expected we would be able to record TV programs for later viewing (we can!). And most important for public legal education purposes, I looked forward to being able to broadcast messages to a quarter of the population of Alberta. LawNow, only one of CPLEA's websites, was accessed by over 400,000 people last year. So I was sort of on track!

But we've overtaken those projections and then some. The legal system and related services are being transformed at an escalating rate. From the perspective of users of the system, changes are occurring regarding three of the most common complaints: cost, complexity, and unsatisfactory outcomes.

New forms of dispute resolution

One of the most serious complaints about the current legal system is its adversarial nature. Litigation is seen as often increasing hostility between parties rather than resolving their conflicts. Fortunately, there is a major shift occurring in how we are resolving disputes in Canada. Parties are being encouraged, assisted, and sometimes even required, to try to settle at least some aspects of their claims before turning to the courts. Some services put the parties in the driver's seat to deal with the matters in dispute themselves.

One of the most sophisticated interactive legal services in Canada is operated by the Justice Education Society in British Columbia. Small Claims BC (www.smallclaimsbc.ca) helps parties deal with disputes online. 'Jes", a virtual assistant, is on...

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