Lightning strikes thrice?

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Written by  Posted Date: November 14, 2016
Dear Attorney General Yasir Naqvi,

I almost choked on my bagel in late August when I read on my iPad that you want to “modernize” Ontario’s justice system.

It was déjà vu for me all over again. Why? Because I helped write the same speech in 1995, as press secretary to then-attorney general Charles Harnick. Our mantra for the two-and-a-half years that I was with the minister was touting the modernization of our justice system.

I am gobsmacked that you are trotting out the same rhetoric two decades later, not because courts can’t use a good round of modernization — lord knows the technology running our justice system is woefully inadequate. No, I am gobsmacked because the civil service has tried this twice before and failed miserably.

It seems to me that lightning is about to strike yet again and my warning for you is to dodge the bolt.
Let me take you back in time. The government’s solution then was to create the Integrated Justice Project to automate both the courts and the cops. Savings generated by reducing the number of government employees pushing paper would be reinvested into the system.

If you Google-search Integrated Justice Project, you’ll learn that it didn’t work out so well. In 2002, the Conservative government scrapped the plan after spending a few hundred million dollars, and later paid out a $63-million settlement to EDS Canada Ltd., the company hired to lead the project. A ministry spokesperson told the media that the project “was too large, too complex and too ambitious.”

What the spokesperson didn’t say is that there was a feeling among some participants that the project was ambushed by civil servants fearful of losing their jobs. Technology projects are as much about changing workplace culture and habits as they are about introducing new tools.

That was modernization round one. I also suggest that you dig deep into your current files and read the $14-million lawsuit between your ministry and CourtCanada Ltd., which is heading to trial in 2018.

CourtCanada is the company that in 2007 provided the ministry with the successful OSCAR electronic court reservation system, which was piloted in the estates court. The beauty of OSCAR was that it didn’t cost the ministry much. Users paid for the system with filing fees. It was later rolled out to the Commercial List and CourtCanada won an RFP for a wider distribution.

That never happened because, despite the RFP, civil servants in charge were busy fiefdom building and championing a more comprehensive internal program being developed in-house called the Court Information Management System. Round two of modernization cost $10 million to build, but it was never implemented. Your predecessor, Madeleine Meilleur, can tell you more about that debacle.

You might also want to speak to Justice David Brown, the judge who I am told spent countless hours of his time and effort dealing with technology projects and implementations, only to have the rug pulled out from under him in his efforts.

His Lord Denning-like ruling in the 2012 case of Romspen Investment Corp. v. 6176666 Canada Ltée., was Kafkaesque in describing his frustration at a missing document and with MAG’s division running the courts, noting: “The entity that operates that part of the Court’s administration system — the Court Services Division of the Ministry of the Attorney General — seems completely indifferent to the unnecessary costs it is causing to the members of the public who use our Court.”

You might also want to speak to the B.C. attorney general. That province has online search and document filing across the province and paid only $3 million to create the first centralized database.

Like many of your predecessors, you want to do what’s right and modernize the courts. But the problem isn’t technology — it works. The real question is why we can’t implement technology in our court system.
For that answer, you need to ask the bureaucrats in charge of court services tough questions.

The problem is the legacy system in place to run our court system and administer it is broken and vastly outdated. It knows only how to do one thing and that’s push paper back and forth, and it doesn’t even do that very well. It’s like a newspaper delivering timely information to readers. Twenty years ago, it was the best method, but in an Internet world, it’s slow, cumbersome and behind the times.

Ask how many people Ontario has pushing paper and how that stacks up to other jurisdictions. Demand the ministry stop trying to reinvent the wheel and insist on building technology in-house. Beware of the workplace culture and institutional bias. Don’t fall for the old saw that Ontario is “special” and somehow different from the thousands of other court jurisdictions in the world that seem to be able to implement technology with much less pain — and cost — than we can here.

Beware of is who is at the table. If the same players are at the table as there were 10 or 20 years ago, is it reasonable to think that you will make any gains? It didn’t work then, why would it work now?

Good luck in your bid to modernize the justice system. However, with your government’s record of ill-fated spending on things such as  e-health records, green energy and failed gas plants, I fear lightning will strike again.

Jim Middlemiss is a principal at WebNewsManagement.com.

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Jim Middlemiss

Jim Middlemiss (jmiddlemiss@webnewsmanagement.com) blogs about the legal profession at WebNews Management.com and can be followed on Twitter @JimMiddlemiss.

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