Modernizing the Top Court: An Interview with the Supreme Court’s Deputy Registrar

The Supreme Court has recently begun making sweeping changes to its physical design. Part of the Court Modernization Project, the changes are an attempt to take advantage of several new legal technologies, and developments in courtroom infrastructure. caught up with the person overseeing the project. The following is drawn from our email exchange with the Supreme Court’s Deputy Registrar, Louise Meagher. What does the Court Modernization Program entail?

Louise Meagher: The Court Modernization Program is a plan to enhance the services provided by the Supreme Court of Canada. It is composed of four projects: 1) Courtroom accommodation, audio visual and information technology; 2) E-Filing; 3) Electronic Document and Records Management (C-Doc); and 4) Policy for Access to Court Records. How will the physical lay-out of the courtroom change?

LM: Given that the Courtroom is a designated heritage space, the skeleton and finishes of the room will not change. However, we have introduced cutting-age audio-visual and computer technology, such as:

    • New digital broadcast quality cameras
    • Improved lighting and sound systems
    • Computers at the nine judges’ places on the bench
    • Computers at the lectern, counsel tables, media table and law clerks’ table
    • A new, accessible lectern, which includes a display terminal to advise counsel of time remaining for oral argument and to indicate which judge is addressing them
    • Two new court clerk desks, one of which is equipped with a console to enable the clerk to control most of the AV/IT functions in the room
    • Four new 50” wall-mounted plasma screens to show live feed of counsel or the bench
    • Completely renovated AV/IT control room and interpreters’ rooms
    • A wireless internet access point, available for counsel and the media to connect to the internet using their own laptops. How will these changes affect hearings?

LM: Starting with the October 2008 session, all case materials will be available to the judges, counsel and the media in electronic format via a custom made application (Courtroom Document Display Tool) on court-provided computers in the courtroom. As well, the judges will be able to take notes and consult the internet on their bench top computers and counsel will be able to access the internet wirelessly using their own laptops. Despite these changes, we anticipate that the current dynamics of oral argument before the Court, with exchanges between the judges and counsel, will continue as before:

    The audio-visual changes have been in place since October 2007 and there has been significant improvement in the sound and picture quality. Counsel are also more comfortable at the lectern, which is height-adjustable. Has anyone expressed concern that access to all this technology might present a distraction in the courtroom?

LM: We did think about this, but are not overly concerned. SCC hearings are pretty intense (running typically just over two hours to complete the case) so it is doubtful that any of the participants would have even a minute to waste trolling the internet. We are phasing–in e-court. Anyone who is not comfortable with the new technology will have the option of using the books, as always. Also, we have installed the quietest keyboards available. Court staff spent quite a bit of time researching modernization initiatives in other jurisdictions. What did they learn? / How does the Supreme Court of Canada stack-up?

LM: We did look at a number of courtrooms in the United States and Canada. The most important lesson for us (and I think that this applies to all technology projects) was to determine exactly what were our requirements and then design and build to those specifications. It is difficult to compare our Courtroom to any other, given the nine member bench, the heritage aspects of the room and the extremely focused hearings. However, we are proud of the results. Electronic filing is another big part of the project. How will this change the way counsel and the justices prepare for court?

LM: Having case documents electronically accessible and searchable should assist counsel and judges both to find the information they require to prepare for the hearings faster and to “copy and paste” into their speaking notes. It can also save lugging all the books from home to office to courtroom. Will any of this electronic material be accessible to the public?

LM: The Court is currently considering a draft Policy for Access to Court Records, which allows for the possibility of posting appeal factums on the SCC website. The draft has been circulated to the Bar and the media for comment. It is anticipated that the policy will be finalized before the start of the October 2008 session. : Some commentators have expressed concern about the legal and privacy implications of on-line factums. Have these concerns been taken into account?

LM: The Court is keenly aware of the tension between the competing values of openness and transparency versus privacy and the proper administration of justice. The Policy for Access to Court Records has been drafted to take this into account and provide safeguards, such as a requirement to have parties file redacted factums when a factum contains personal information that should not be made widely available. It is easier to implement such safeguards when we are only dealing at this time with factums as opposed to full records. Appropriate notices with respect to fair dealing and copyright would also be posted. Webcasts and podcasts of oral arguments have grown enormously popular with followers of the U.S. Supreme Court. Are they a possibility here?

LM: The new digital AV recording systems, allow for the technical possibility. However, the judges have not yet decided whether they are in favour from a policy perspective. What about the justices themselves, how are they responding to the changes?

LM: Obviously, I can’t speak for the judges in terms of their personal feelings about these changes. I think it is fair to say though that the project team has their support and that feedback with respect to the three pilot cases heard in April has been generally positive. It was at the Chief Justice’s request that we initiated these projects a number of years ago and she has been a champion throughout. How soon will all this happen?

LM: The AV and industrial design aspects are already implemented. The intention is to move to e-hearings for all appeals by October 2008. Hopefully, our records access policy will also be in place by then. We are planning to move from e-filing by CD-Rom to an e-filing portal in 2009-2010.

For more on the Supreme Court’s modernization initiatives, visit the Supreme Court’s website and take the virtual tour.

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