Virtual Hearings Are Here To Stay

December 18, 2022

By Brian Babcock

I hope that we can all agree that the pandemic was mostly terrible.

However, there were some bright spots of change.

THE ISSUE

As we emerge from the pandemic, even if COVID joins the list of viruses to be avoided at less than pandemic levels, one of the questions that arises is how many of these changes will remain with us going forward.

In the world of law, prior to the pandemic, law offices and legal publishers had done a much better job than the court system in moving at least further into the 20th century, and in some cases into the 21st century, of technology. Although the court system had embraced computerization to some extent, for some reason, despite its vast resources, the government could not ever come to grips with developing a comprehensive system that worked properly, was accessible, and user friendly. Paper filing, physical payments, paper documents, and spiral bound casebooks were still required.

WHERE WE ARE

I think most stakeholders would agree that we are not yet firmly in the 21st century but suddenly, in a very short period of time, the government managed to introduce many long-awaited reforms, such as the electronic filing not only of documents, but of statements of claim and other documents that initiate proceedings. Online payments became common. This was all done with a minimum of disruption and very few glitches.

Then suddenly last summer, various courts experimented with competing systems for virtual hearings and the document management systems to go with those hearings. In this regard, there was a lot more difficulty in finding the right systems that satisfied all stakeholders. The government and their technology advisors and vendors are still working on improvements.

WHERE WE MAY BE HEADED

The practice directions that have come out to facilitate the return to more in-person attendances in court help make clear that although we will have in-person courts, the days of electronic filing, electronic documents, and the use of virtual hearings are still with us and will likely never go away. We can just hope that the government going forward will maintain its commitment to improve these systems so that they are not only more workable, but also more user friendly and improve access to and the quality of justice.

TAKEAWAYS

Among the things that were confirmed at the recent Thunder Bay Law Association continuing professional development conference are:

  • Virtual mediations work. Very few mediators have noticed any difference in results, and the statistics back that up.
  • The courts are still working on the best practices for hybrid trials or hybrid hearings (which are partially in-person and partially virtual), but they are committed to this mode of hearing.
  • Parties and witnesses frequently find that not having to travel is more convenient and eliminates problems such as the need for babysitters.
  • Given the distance in northwestern Ontario, virtual hearings simply make sense; however, good internet connections with lots of speed and bandwidth are essential.
  • We are pleased that the government continues to fund expansions in rural areas and small towns of internet technology.
  • Although the use of electronic documents has been frustrating to date, the courts appear to be committed to this pathway, which we believe will ultimately benefit all stakeholders.
  • Our regional judges are prepared to opt out of Toronto-centric solutions to Toronto specific problems, when possible, by issuing regional practice directions modifying requirements.

It is nice to see some common sense being applied – not something we usually expect from government.

HOW WEILERS LLP CAN HELP YOU

At Weilers LLP we have always been early adopters of technology. Despite our proud traditions, our progressive approach has led to us being at the forefront of automation in northwestern Ontario. We were one of the first firms to embrace computerized accounting, terminals on everybody’s desks, and a networked system. As faster and better and more reliable systems came online, we quickly preceded down those pathways.

Although we still value our physical library as a research tool, we are adept with and equipped with a variety of electronic tools for research and drafting.

We have realigned our office space to accommodate virtual hearings, because we have embraced virtual hearings and are pleased to see that they’re not going away. Although there are often advantages to an in-person hearing, in some situations the benefits of a virtual hearing outweigh the loss of face-to-face contact.

We plan to remain as early adopters to avoid the pitfalls of being at the “bleeding edge” while being able to provide our clients with consistently reliable service at reasonable cost (almost certainly at lower cost than you are likely to find in the big law firms of southern Ontario, though our goal is to deliver a comparable quality of service).

We are confident about how we have adapted so far and are looking forward to the future.

If you want lawyers whose proud tradition and progressive approach stands for quality and efficient service at a fair cost, Weilers LLP may be the right lawyers for you.