Zooming in on Legal Tech in 2020

It happened: I got old.  I don’t know exactly when it happened. Maybe it happened this semester. Maybe it happened over the summer. I suppose it could have happened last year and I just didn’t notice.

I’m not even thirty yet, and still, somehow, I have found myself at the optometrist getting fitted for bifocals so I can read the tiny print in the textbooks without giving myself a massive headache. I got a super ugly pair of orthopedic slippers. I also had set up my work station in a way that didn’t hurt my back and I had to stop using my phone so much, because oh my god, my thumbs were cramping so badly.

I have no idea how to talk to my teenage siblings anymore. They want to do all these phone-based things with me, but I spend so much time staring at a screen, that I find myself asking if we can just go play outside like we did back in the olden days.

A year and a half ago, I was working in a support role at a law firm and was running around the office helping with computer setup, database issues, software problems, whatever. But something changed.

Now, my girlfriend (who is a whopping 6 months younger) cannot understand why I don’t know how to use all the new Instagram features.

I used to be baffled by the baby boomers in my workplace who didn’t know how to edit a word document or conduct a basic document search on the firm database.

But now, I must say, I get it.

Sometimes, the font is just too small. Sometimes, the program set-up, or day to day functionality, is just so complex or so filled with bugs, that it can feel impossible to use. Sometimes, the program just isn’t intuitive, and the setup or navigation process is more complicated than the task you need the program to complete. Sometimes, the help line is closed and you’ve got a thousand other things on your plate that needed to be done yesterday.

I never thought I’d say this, but boomers, I get you.

I get you and I’m sorry for shaming you for your technological deficiencies. I now understand that in order for the field of law to step into the 21st century, we have to make legal tech more user-friendly. No senior partner is going to want to relearn their entire work system at a point in their career when they are experiencing peak success.  If I ever find myself in a web design role, I promise to make the font adjustable and organize the contents logically so that you can easily find whatever it is you need and get back to your shuffleboard game.

To my young gen z friends: you can laugh at me and my reading glasses and my misuse of snapchat filters all you like, but remember, you’re next.

Forced Change: Get With It or Get Left Behind

I first started working around real estate law and conveyancing in 2009.  At that time, the Land Title Office had been accepting electronic filing (e-filing) documents for a number of years, which had replaced the process before, physically land filing all documents at the appropriate registry.  There were a number of lawyers when I started who refused to e-file.  They were used to land filing.  I couldn’t understand it.  For a real estate office in North Vancouver to help someone buy a house in Kamloops, you could hit “submit” from your office or you could literally pay someone to go to the Kamloops registry and stand in line to file the application in person.  It seems like a pretty easy decision which one of those is more conducive to making money and not wasting time. But nevertheless, change is hard. A few years after that, around 2013, land filing became obsolete, and some lawyers never practiced real estate law again.

7 years later, I still work in a real estate firm. In March, the Land Title Office advised lawyers and notaries alike who practice real estate law that e-filing (which requires the used of Adobe Acrobat DC) is being replaced by Web Filing.   I have known about this since I returned to work after exams in April.  I knew this was coming. But I have done nothing, until today, to try and learn how to use the new system. I only tried today because I read some of these blog posts and realized I’m being part of the problem. Well that, and our e-filing applications started saying “this version of the form is being phased out” as of Thursday of last week, so I knew the end was near.

Why is it that although I know change is made for a reason, whether that’s to increase efficiency, help solve common mistakes or help make people’s lives easier, I still find it more of a hassle than a help?  I have been using the same process for 10 years and I know that process inside and out. Until that notice on my application that the end was coming, I had been feeling completely fine about not learning the new system. Of the 300 deals we have done over the past few months, only one was done through Web Filing.  So, I wasn’t alone.   The majority of firms were just like us: used to what we were used to with no desire to change until absolutely necessary.

Taking this class has made me realize how many areas of law could be helped by apps and more importantly, how much time could be saved. The number of times I’ve had to answer questions about what types of transactions GST gets paid on, it almost makes me upset thinking there could be a way for someone to find the answer themselves in a few short questions.  COVID-19 has created opportunities for delivery of legal services that were unheard of prior. The Land Title Office, during the pandemic, has allowed for videoconference signing with clients.  There are many additional requirements but it’s still possible where it was not before.

Between applications for easy access to information and lawyers being forced to embrace change and get uncomfortable more often, I think firms with staff and lawyers more able to respond quickly will have an upper hand.  Eventually, it will either be change, or get left behind.

Future Kamloops Mental Health Court … With Apps?

Becca Dickson

There are more than 20 designated mental health courts in Canada, none of which are in BC. Mental health courts are typically available to people who have been charged with a crime and who have mental health issues that relate to the criminal behaviour. TRU Law Professor Ruby Dhand and Kamloops lawyer Michelle Stanford are working on a proposal for a mental health court in Kamloops.

Mental health courts intend to divert people with mental health issues away from the criminal justice system and towards treatment and various supports in the community. To be sustainable, the court must be inexpensive to run, and have a measurable impact on the individual/community that it serves.

The future Kamloops mental health court could benefit from an app which streamlined its admission process. Below, I use the Nova Scotia mental health court’s admission criteria and statistics to outline why.

The Nova Scotia mental health court (now called the Dartmouth Wellness Court)  has been around for 10 years. In order for someone to participate in the court, they must be referred and deemed elibile to participate. The eligibility criteria include:

  • Being over 18 years old
  • Living in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM)
  • Having a substantial connection to the HRM (for example – attending school in the area)
  • Having a mental disorder that is a recognized serious and persistent mental illness and is substantially connected to the offence.
  • Crown attorney consent

In the first four years of the program 687 individuals were referred to the mental health court, and 232 of them were deemed eligible to participate. Individuals who were referred waited an average of 50.58 days before hearing whether or not they were admitted to the program.

An app which asked the user basic eligibility questions could help streamline the process. It could ask plain language questions to determine preliminary eligibility (like “How old are you?” “Do you live in the HRM?” “Do you have a mental health disorder that is clearly related to your charge?”) The app could then create a report to be emailed to the next person who needs to see it to make further eligibility determinations.

In this unprecedented era of forced justice system reform, ideas like this that would have seemed really “outside the box” before might now be pretty much “inside the box” and have a realistic chance of being implemented, if designed well.

Court: A Click Away!

The “slow to change, uphold tradition” mindset has hampered the use and uptake of technology in the justice system. Pre-Covid, court participants had to go to a physical location, wait for the allotted time, then present themselves in their role. Videoconferencing and audio call-ins were underused, and the profession claimed not to have its strengths in IT.

Covid-19 changed how we see large gatherings of people and thus critically impacted the court system. Moving forward, there will be pressure to grow the online adjudication of uncomplicated civil and criminal matters. Zoom cases that have already been conducted should not be seen as temporary, but also, they should not be seen as permanent. The adjustments in the pandemic should be a stepping stone in developing a standard tool that will be utilized throughout the justice system.

I’m simply a law student who has never done a “real” trial, but there are some suggestions and procedures that may assist in setting the standards of virtual court. This is simply a discussion on how things may change and the benefit of those suggestions.

The Courtroom (or “Courtzoom”) 

Zoom and similar platforms have provided a service to many during the pandemic, having created a place to go when it could be anywhere but physical. In the near future, our virtual courtroom should be on its own platform with a custom interface that eases the process and maintains the decorum.

  • There could be a set position in gallery mode, where the Crown (or Plaintiff) and Defence (or Defendant) counsels’ video box would always appear. Which could be set by logging in as such. The judge would appear in a box at the top of the screen.
  • The room would be open 20 minutes before without the judge enters to allow for “tech testing” time (more on that later). This would also allow the judge to come in afterwards, which would provide an opportunity for counsel to bow and show respect.
  • The witness view box could be moved individually.
  • Judges and clerks would be given additional controls to mute other participants, record cases and create private breakout rooms.
  • There would be a forum portion or “hub” that would have court listings that would allow the public to enter as passive viewers.

These ideas only skim the surface of what could be implemented to better the courts. I think there should be a focus on creating a system that is easy to navigate, and allows for each participant to seamlessly go through the process, while conserving some of the dignity that surrounds the court.

The Participant Set-up

Due to the accessibility of the internet and technology, set-up could easily be satisfied by having a quiet space, internet connection and a laptop (or smartphone). Though far from ideal, it would allow for those with less funds to be able to contribute and participate. I find myself interested in the “access to justice” aspect of such a change. In one view, this would help those in rural areas without transportation get the opportunity to be “in” court. Another view may see this as increasing the divide between those that have and those that don’t. As with many things, there are positives and negatives. Much of the brainstorming of ideas in this post is about highlighting those benefits and finding ways to lighten the load of the downside.

  • The “courtzoom” should be accessible to smartphones to widen the scope of participation. It could use a one-time log in, to allow for people to feel safe borrowing tech to use for their hearing.
  • A link could be shared to family and friends that would easily allow them to join as passive viewers. Allowing for the support of having someone you care about in your corner.
  • For those without the means of technology, there should be public buildings with rooms set up for videoconferences. These could be found in places like libraries and universities and could be used on a reserve basis. Firms could be encouraged to bring their clients into their conference rooms, so they have the benefit of working technology. I know that this opens up a world of other issues, but to think that we are given the opportunity to bring the “court” and “justice” to those that are vulnerable is an opportunity we should jump on.

How do we help?

This question needs to be present for all those that put their mind to connecting technology and the court. Tech has the opportunity to be the support that so many need. Those outside the profession of law need to come first when visualizing what a new system could look like.

It’s about making steps in the right direction.

Counsel & Advocacy 

I believe a lot of lawyers will be able to adapt to the changes of virtual court and continue to serve their clients in whatever new medium may appear. It may take some time though.

This point of the conversation has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Due to the criminal moot that I’m competing in having moved to a virtual medium, I’ve begun to wonder how to advocate over my laptop. Below I’ve compiled some of my thoughts, using my current understanding of technology, advocacy lessons from the moot and Professor Jones’ class. To ground all my ideas in how practice is going now, the podcast “The Lawyers Lounge” has an episode on virtual hearings where the hosts helpfully explain their own experiences in online court.

I’m interested in how advocacy at the trial level will change and grow as things are added and removed from how we view virtual hearings. What can lawyers do to increase their presence in such a courtroom?

  • Multiple screens will be pivotal to managing the balance between the video boxes that are watching (passive), video boxes that are speaking and being spoken to (active) and the documents required to conduct the trial.
  • There should be an “eye-contact” screen that has the webcam attached with the video of the person you’re speaking to, and the documents required at the moment on the same screen.
  • Good lighting and mic quality are important as well. As advocates you’d want to present the best case as possible without having dark rooms or muffled voices distracting viewers.
  • A podium set-up may be ideal if the advocate is better on their feet.
  • A good knowledge of the platform being used, and a 20 min tech testing period before the trial begins will reduce tech stumbles that may slow the process.
  • It is possible that due to the distance often felt with virtual communication, it might be beneficial to be slightly (and I mean only a tad) more theatrical when presenting your case. It might keep those involved more “dialed in”, when it’s so easy to “tune out”.

These suggestions are simply the thoughts of a law student excited about how things may change. There will always be a need for a physical court as some issues require it, but to think about using technology to further your field and alter the profession has value. There is this opportunity to make a tough situation into a lasting change that will benefit all those involved.

If anyone has ideas to add or advocacy suggestions, I would enjoying reading them. Thanks!

Michael Noguera


Professor Craig Jones’ advocacy lessons helped how I though about what alterations may be successful.

Lisa Jorgensen & Danielle Robitaille. “Inside the Courtroom: Virtual trials and the Sharma decision”, (2020), online: The Lawyers Lounge Podcast <http:// www.emond.ca/the-lawyers-lounge-episode-archive>.