The pandemic has forced millions of court proceedings to go virtual over the past two years, a necessity to move the wheels of justice forward.
Now, a group of family lawyers in Ontario want virtual hearings to become the norm.
More than 1,000 lawyers have signed a petition to have all court appearances “presumed to be virtual, unless the parties and their lawyers agree otherwise”.
“This technology makes it easy for people to access the justice system from home,” Russell Alexander, a lawyer who supports the idea, told CTV News.
Lawyers argue that remote court saves them time, which reduces bills for their clients, while improving access to justice for people with disabilities or other barriers to in-person meetings.
“Virtual has been one of the very few benefits we’ve had from this pandemic, so let’s not go back,” said Nafisa Nazarali, another advocate supporting the idea.
As COVID-19 restrictions at courthouses have begun to be lifted across the country, many judges are having to decide on a case-by-case basis whether proceedings will be in-person, remote or hybrid.
But while some lawyers defend remote courts, others say we shouldn’t ignore the downsides.
Criminal defense attorney Michael Spratt said while remote appearances have merits, some low-income clients will be disadvantaged if virtual becomes the default setting.
“Insisting on virtual proceedings in these cases could essentially [emphasize] the already glaring disparity between haves and have-nots in the justice system,” Spratt said.
“Balance is the exact word we need to use.”
The well-known fact that technology is imperfect can also slow down legal proceedings.
Currently, significant backlogs at the Ontario Landlords and Tenants Board mean that disputes can drag on for months or even years due to delays in getting a hearing.
When they do happen, these hearings are held virtually, but they can compound communication problems between two parties who already disagreed, with tenants and landlords sometimes using the excuse of technological issues to avoid responding. to questions or participate fully in the hearing.
And some worry that the lack of face-to-face interaction will affect the outcome of hearings.
Tenant Lea Donaldson recently fought an eviction. But she fears that if she were to fight her landlord in court, it would be over a computer, which would hamper her ability to communicate.
“I wouldn’t be able to show up as well as I could in person,” Donaldson said.
Even as courtrooms grapple with which legal issues should be handled remotely, provinces are making investments.
Ontario, for example, pledged $65 million to upgrade videoconferencing technology and training.