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Virtual court options will remain essential, 2 Ontario chief justices say

The Ontario Courthouse at 361 University Avenue in Toronto is photographed on Monday, May 2, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

The pandemic forced the court system to quickly adopt technology it had long resisted, such as facilitating remote hearings, and as society now resumes “in person,” two Ontario chief justices say virtual options will remain essential for access to justice.

The chief justices for the Superior and Ontario courts, as well as the associate chief justice of Ontario, who is leading the Court of Appeal, made remarks Monday at the annual opening of the courts ceremony, and all reflected on modernization emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Superior Court of Justice this year released guidelines for how to decide, going forward, whether a matter should be heard in person or virtually.

A return to in-person hearings, especially for complex cases, is an integral part of the justice system, said Superior Court Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz.

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“Having said that, we also know that the availability of virtual hearings has been transformational for the courts. When deployed for the right types of proceedings, virtual hearings open our court to greater flexibility and accessibility,” he said in his remarks.

“There is no going back: virtual hearings have become a permanent fixture for court proceedings.”

Ontario Court Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve outlined a “post-pandemic vision” and said the court is striving to make the most of the pandemic challenges that have proven to be opportunities, such as the use of technology for remote appearances.

“A hybrid model of justice that can accommodate virtual, in-person and dual proceedings, with the ability to seamlessly transition from video to in person, across all regions, is essential,” she said in her remarks.

Technology is helping to address a case backlog, Maisonneuve said, but “there is a vital need for more.”

“More importantly, we need additional staffing in our courts,” she said, addressing her next comments to Attorney General Doug Downey.

“We look forward to continuing our dialogue about the needs in the system. I know that you are committed to ensuring that the staffing model is appropriate and reflective of a modern justice system.”

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From the Appeal Court, Associate Chief Justice Michal Fairburn issued a more lukewarm endorsement of virtual appearances, though that court doesn’t deal with as many brief appearances as the lower courts, instead often handling long and complex legal arguments.

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“While we now encourage parties to attend in-person, we have, and plan to continue, for at least the immediate future, providing parties with the flexibility to attend remotely if required,” she said.

The Appeal Court recently launched the first phase of a new, digital case-management system that replaces a 30-year-old database, Fairburn said. The third phase, expected in 2023, will provide a new public portal for improved electronic filing, fee payment and document access, she said.

Over the next year the public should also see from the Appeal Court a new decision database with better search capacity, improved courtroom technology and a newly renovated, fully accessible courtroom, Fairburn said.

“Public participation and engagement with the justice system, as well as understanding of the justice system, is an essential element of safeguarding the legitimacy of the rule of law,” she said. “We must continue to evolve with this in mind.”

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