Tom Spraggs.

Tom Spraggs.

OP-ED: Improving access to justice means modernizing legal practice

Use of technology in law firms could help British Columbians afford essential legal services.

Tom Spraggs named a bencher last month for the Law Society of British Columbia representing Westminster County, the province’s oldest bar association. Benchers act as a volunteer board of governors for the Law Society, which regulates the legal profession in B.C. by setting and enforcing standards of professional conduct.

I have been a lawyer practising in the civil justice system for nearly 20 years and it’s a privilege to be able to represent my clients in courts of law in a country where rule of law is paramount and a robust, independent judiciary upholds the rights of the people.

Fundamental to the rule of law is that the public have confidence in the legal system. This requires that people be able to access courts in a timely manner.

In the civil justice system, where I practise, delays are significant.

Statistics Canada data shows that in 2018, 14 per cent of cases took more than two years to resolve, including trials, settlements and abandonments.

In B.C., this number is eight per cent, up from seven in 2017 and six in 2016.

In Ontario, 22 per cent of civil cases took more than two years to resolve.

Why are so many civil cases taking more than two years to resolve?

The answer, in part, lies in the length of time it takes to get a trial date.

The British Columbia Supreme Court reports that the wait for a civil trial is generally 18 months in the New Westminster and Vancouver registries.

In my experience, the actual likelihood of actually obtaining a trial date at the 18-month mark is low.

In the New Westminster and Vancouver registries, dates for motor vehicle-related trials are released the first week of every month for dates 18 months into the future.

These dates book up quickly, and if a date is not secured, the litigant will need to call again the following month.

The British Columbia Supreme Court Annual Report also notes that fewer trials are being scheduled in order to avoid bumping, which occurs when a trial is scheduled to begin, but there is no available judge.

If there is no judge, the litigants must reschedule – likely for another 18 months into the future.

So, what is causing these delays?

The answer is complex.

There are a number of social, political and legal factors. However, there is one factor that I think is a manifestation of many of the challenges in our justice system – an increasing number of self-represented litigants using the court system.

When people go to court without a lawyer, hearings take longer as they try to navigate difficult procedures and judges try to ensure litigants’ rights are protected.

A study conducted in 2013 noted that self-representation in B.C. Supreme Court was at 35 per cent overall and at 57 per cent for matters related to family law.

It should come as no surprise that the primary reason for people choosing to represent themselves is the cost of legal services.

In the same study, 90 per cent of respondents indicated financial reasons for not hiring a lawyer.

The inaccessibility of lawyers and legal services is at the crux of the problems with our system and one cause of the delays in the courts.

Again, a solution to this problem is complex. Without a doubt, one way to address this problem is with adequate funding of legal aid.

However, in my opinion, technology can also help reduce legal costs and improve access to justice.

Lawyers have been slow to adopt technology and incorporate it into practice.

Innovative technology solutions have been developed to reduce overhead, and other expenses and are particularly effective in smaller law firms.

One simple example is to go paperless.

By moving to electronic record-keeping instead of paper record-keeping, law firms will need less office space and, therefore, lower their operating expenses are lower.

It’s no accident that Clio, a Vancouver-based legal technology start-up that provides cloud-based legal practice management software, recently announced a $250-million US round of financing to grow its operation – investors recognize the huge untapped potential for the use of technology in law.

In November, I was elected to the board of governors of the Law Society of British Columbia, the body that regulates the legal profession.

One of the issues I am looking forward to addressing is how regulators can encourage and facilitate the use of technology in legal practice.

Most lawyers are not technologists – their core objective is to protect their clients’ interests.

Lawyers need help with understanding and embracing technological change, and the profession needs regulations that make it possible.

I am looking forward to working on this issue in the public interest.


 

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