A pair of Thompson Rivers University law professors are among 14 people named to a provincial advisory group set to look at how B.C.’s justice system could change in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Professors Craig Jones and Katie Sykes are part of the Ministry of Attorney General’s cross-jurisdictional technical advisory group.
B.C.’s courts largely ground to a halt late last month, now only hearing urgent cases or those dealing with people recently arrested. Most other files are being adjourned to dates yet to be set.
“We had a sort of a crisis in the justice system before COVID hit, sort of a low boil,” Jones told KTW. “That’s completely boiled over now that much of the justice system has shut down.”
Jones said he sees the advisory group as having two functions — to help B.C.’s justice system deal with the inevitable backlog when the pandemic recedes and to look to the future.
“When everything’s broken, it’s easier to build something new than it is when the structure is intact,” he said.
“The attorney general [David Eby] wants to seize this moment and see if we can change a lot of the way we do things. … I think the backlog creates the opportunity. Anything that reduces the backlog will have some use going forward.”
The committee is made up largely of academics, but includes former Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, former longtime deputy attorney general Allan Seckel and renowned British legal futurist and author Richard Susskind, who played a big role in the U.K.’s recent move to allow some courts to hear matters online.
Jones said changes were bound to happen before the pandemic became a factor, but added the unprecedented backlog building up will kick things into overdrive.
“This is going to accelerate a lot of what was happening anyway,” he said. “There’s obviously a lot of thirst and enthusiasm to see how technology can make what we’re doing better, cheaper and more easily accessible. But I think there’s even more we can do than that.”
Jones was hesitant to get into specifics, but said the recommendations could shake things up.
“I’m concerned with the way that small numbers of very resource-intensive cases tend to bog down the judiciary,” he said. “I think to myself, ‘There has to be a better way.’ Not just tweaking around the edges, but rethinking the justice system.”
That could mean online courts, increased video-conferencing, internet filing and, potentially, artificial intelligence. Susskind is author of a 2008 book called The End of Lawyers? and last year wrote Online Courts and the Future of Justice, which predicts artificial intelligence will play a significant role in the courts of the future.
But, Jones said, a lot of B.C.’s justice system should remain.
“We have to appreciate that there is a lot of bathwater here that we don’t want to throw out,” he said. “We have one of the most admired judicial systems in the world.”
The advisory group held its first meeting on April 24. Jones said the plan is to meet twice per week.