Technology will not solve our problems

Technology should serve justice, not the other way around, writes Tim Wilbur

Soon after the pandemic hit Canada, the justice system ground to a halt. Courts closed their doors; trials were delayed and routine legal processes stopped. While social distancing requirements created many challenges for law firms, delays in the justice system were an even bigger headache for clients. 

Just when the delays were at their worst, a calm voice emerged from the chaos — Civil Resolution Tribunal chairwoman Shannon Salter — to say, “We’re still operating as usual.” The CRT uses online dispute resolution and has a distributed, remote workforce, allowing it to continue serving the public during the pandemic. 

Salter has been the chairwoman of the CRT since its inception, so we spoke with her for this issue to find out how she helped launch a tribunal that used technology in a way that is so suited to the times.  

Her answer surprised me. 

Salter, who was home schooled in rural British Columbia, is not a technophile, and she says technology is not the reason the CRT is so successful. Technology is simply a means to deliver access to justice more efficiently. 

“The best way to use technology is not just to slap a form on your website or to use in courts or e-filing,” Salter told me. “But it's rather to do the much more profound, difficult change work of using human-centred design to completely reconstruct the justice system around the needs of the public.” 

The optimistic view of the pandemic is that it will force the entire justice system to tackle this profound work.  

And it is not just on the front lines of the justice system that this reform is taking place. Appeal courts across Canada have moved to virtual trials, which may result in permanent changes once they see the benefits. But as Earl Cherniak argues in our Back Page column, this use of technology should not ignore the importance of oral advocacy. Luckily, video conferencing has helped to ensure that much of that advocacy has been retained despite the pandemic. 

What both Salter and Cherniak point out, though, is that the technology should serve justice, not the other way around. No event, including the COVID-19 pandemic, should change that. 

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