It started as an idea taken from the restaurant trade where patrons are given a buzzer that indicates when their table is ready. A group of Thompson Rivers University law students have taken that concept and evolved it into an app that allows lawyers or self-litigants to know when a hearing on an application before the B.C. Supreme Court justice may occur during the day.
“We have all had experiences where we have sat around four to eight hours at a courthouse waiting for a hearing that can last only a few minutes,” said Nawel Benrabah, who finished her third year law at TRU and is part of a student team that originated the SUMMONS app.
The team developed the app as a class project for their course Lawyering in the 21st Century, first offered last fall by TRU assistant professor Katie Sykes.
Benrabah and teammates Servesh Jeet, Nikta Shirazian, Megan Sahlstrom, Harman Bains, and Houtan Sanandaji chose to look at ways to reduce wait times for lawyers or self-litigants at courthouses during the “interlocutory” or interim time between the beginning and end of an action, when many appearances may be necessary.
Usually, lawyers notify the registry the morning of the day they need to be in court and then wait around for time to be heard.
“We thought, ‘how can we streamline the process?’” says Benrabah. “You can’t add more staff. How can you use what is already in place and also provide a system that is less work for people to use?”
SUMMONS takes the requests as they come forward from lawyers or self-reps and using programmed average time parameters then slots those requests into the day’s scheduling of court space. It alerts the lawyer or self-reps via the app on their phone.
As the court proceeds during the day, it can update or keep sending alerts.
Benrabah says the system allows lawyers to work at their office until they are needed. It also is a cost saving to clients, who are not being billed for their lawyer’s time since he or she can work on other files back at the office.
For self-reps it can mean less time off work.
A file number indicates the type of matter it is and the platform has the capability to accommodate e-filing and e-signatures. Benrabah says one of the features of the software is that it has GPS capabilities so it can calculate the position of the person requesting the court time and how long it will take for that person to get to court.
The software was developed for the court registry use by programmers in North Africa. Benrabah, who is from Algeria but was raised in Surrey, B.C., said passport offices use it there to keep individuals who have a less tight rein on the clock to keep their appointed times.
The office personnel “notify your cellphone to make sure you show up for your appointment,” she said.
Two programmers in North Africa are being used, plus two more in Toronto and Victoria, and a consultant in Manitoba. Benrabah developed the app.
The application will only work if the courthouse computer software has been updated with the new SUMMONS software. That is the next phase of the project.
The group is hoping to launch a pilot project at the Kamloops, B.C., courthouse in 2017 and has been garnering support from members of the judiciary. The group has judges advocating for the project at a provincial level through the networking abilities of the TRU law’s judge-in-residence, retired justice Richard Blair.
“The next step is a presentation in July to the Vancouver judiciary,” says Benrabah, who is hopeful that the presentation will include the chief justice of the province.
She says that while the group can explain how the project works, it needs the real-life perspective of experienced members of the legal community to be able to optimize the app or address challenges before a pilot is launched.
The Kamloops courthouse is being proposed as a trial site as it is not as busy as Vancouver or New Westminster, B.C., she says, and would provide the ability to closer monitor any problems that might arise and mitigate their effect.
The team is not looking to sell the system for money but hopes to make it available free. The app can be downloaded at Google Play or the Apple App Store.
“We don’t want to make money off the idea. We feel we want to be part of the process that our professors teach and try to improve access to justice. We want to improve the Canadian judicial system.”