The Ministry of the Attorney General has made significant strides in responding to the state of emergency which began on March 17, 2020, leading to the rapid facelift of the justice system. Both the Ontario Court of Justice and the Superior Court of Justice began hearing matters remotely, by the use of zoom application and teleconferences. Judges and lawyers called into the court, while the court staff (including a registrar and reporter) managed the operation from within the court itself. These were the kinds of technological investments that were made to facilitate urgent matters in the courts during the pandemic. Covid-19 has shifted the consciousness of our justice system, giving it a facelift for the 21st century.
The Ontario government made significant investments for the purchasing of 600 new teleconference lines, over 900 laptops and VPN tokens, and 746 cell phones to name a few of the resources required to update Ontario’s severely antiquated justice system. Further, staff training have been ongoing: refresher courses for Office365, VPN, JVN, e-signature and other remote work tools. These are options that many of us have never heard of, much less imagine would be part of our “work tools.” In the last two weeks, the Recovery Secretariat has put on a number of town hall meetings held on zoom to guide Ministry staff through the health and safety measures and protocols for court recovery. In addition, court staff were methodically trained on Zoom application. The Ministry of the Attorney General have been swift and proactive in the face of challenges. My only hope is that these changes will be lasting.
Covid-19 made us see the flexibility of our justice system in implementing change, albeit slow over the decades. These changes, “…will move Ontario’s justice system forward by decades and allow it to emerge from this public health crisis more resilient and better positioned to face future challenges” says Attorney General Doug Downey in a press conference held on May 8, 2020. “These responsible investments will leave a legacy of transformational benefits to all Ontarians in every region of our province, making it easier, faster and more affordable to access justice no matter where people live.”
In the midst of the technological changes, the justice system also has to focus on an interim plan for the health and safety of our courthouses. Close to 300 protective barriers have been designed for the 74 sites, including courthouses, agencies and tribunal locations. There has been enhanced cleaning of the courthouses, on a regular basis; the cleaning of door handles, escalator rails, and the courtrooms. At the Superior Court of Justice, located at 361 University Ave, I have seen the cleaners in action first-hand. Hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes have been readily available in courtrooms. Approximately 7,000 units of hand sanitizers have been purchased for the courts in Ontario.
In preparation for the reopening on July 6, 2020, the Ministry will take a phased approach to reopening courthouses, in line with provincial direction. In phase one, the Ministry will open a total of 149 courtrooms across the province, all while allowing virtual courts to remain essential and the online system encouraged for filing.
Ontario’s justice system is definitely getting with the times, faster than anyone could imagine. A facelift was long overdue for the antiquated system. As a result, our justice system will continue to become more accessible, more responsive, more resilient and ready to serve Ontarians in the 21st century.