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  • Martin Felsky

Navigating to the court of the future

A thousand years of progress?

The job of a judge, and the working environment of judges, have been quite stable for generations. "When you see a judge or magistrate sitting in court, you are actually looking at the result of 1,000 years of legal evolution" A thousand years ago the biggest technological innovation was the astrolabe (pictured).

Today, seafarers use advanced information and communications technology to navigate, including GPS - which was made commercially available as recently as the 1980s.

Is there any reason to believe that judicial officials should schedule, hear and decide cases the same way they did 1,000 years ago? Obviously not. But what about 30 years ago? Because in the last few decades, information technology has been transforming every aspect of our world.

Navigation is about two things: knowing where you are headed, and knowing where you are now.

Where are we now?

Canadian courts are well behind the technology curve. True, most judges use laptops in their chambers and on the bench. In many courts parties can file their pleadings and other forms electronically. A few courts have been using digital registry systems for scheduling and tracking proceedings. Every court has a website, and publishes their decisions online. Some have moved their office productivity tools into the cloud. These are important and welcome changes. But we have a long way to go in order to benefit from the possibilities of technologies.

Where are we going?

There is no single vision or ideal endpoint for courts of the future. According to Richard Susskind, the court of the future may not even be a court at all: courts are service providers, not places.

The future is a choice we make, not a random destiny. We know that there are multiple futures in our grasp, and many technology tools available today (and new technologies that will be invented in the future) to help us shape that future. We also know that inaction is a choice, a choice that abdicates responsibility for creating the conditions today that will lead to the future we desire.

There are historical, systemic challenges that keep courts miles behind the leading edge. Our job now is to understand and overcome those challenges. I have identified seven critical success factors for building out a court's vision for the future. It is hard work, but needs to be done, even in the face of objections.

Thoughtful people who oppose change are not obstructionist: As A.J. Sheppard wrote, “Some of those who are resisting change most strongly are only doing so because they care. They’re the ones you need to be listening to.” Promoting technology in the courts does not mean giving up our justice values and principles. In fact it is the only way of protecting them.


Photo of astrolabe: Courtesy of Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

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