Why isn’t the BC Provincial Court using more video technology for hearings?

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It’s been suggested the Provincial Court of British Columbia could make more use of technology, including cloud-based video-conferencing and apps like Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype, to link in participants by video for hearings and trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve carefully examined the possibility of doing that. At present our ability to make greater use of technology is limited by three factors – system capacity, data security, and legislation – but we hope things will change in the not-too-distant future.

This eNews describes our current video conferencing capacity, how we’ve been working to expand it, and the reasons we’re hopeful we’ll be able to move to a cloud-based system before too long.

Provincial Court judges and judicial justices in BC have been using videoconferencing since the 1990s:

• to connect the Justice Centre in Burnaby to remote locations for bail hearings;
• for remand appearances and bail hearings for persons charged with offences and appearing from a remand or custody centre;
• to maximize judicial resources by allowing judges and judicial case managers in one courthouse to hear preliminary matters from another; and
• to permit some witnesses to testify from outside a courtroom when authorized by applicable laws.

Video equipment in a Surrey courtroom - 2019
Photo: Cliff MacArthur/provincialcourt.bc.ca

There are videoconferencing units in almost all court locations across the province, except for some remote circuit court locations without access to the internet. However, our current system is hardware-based and requires a physical data connection to the government network. In order to maximize its utility, we have been working for some time to get more video units into police detachments for weekend bail hearings and to increase the number of video units in BC Corrections facilities.

We have also been working to find a way to connect Indigenous communities to the Court by video. This would greatly improve access to justice by removing barriers created by travel. It could also improve community participation in court proceedings, particularly child protection cases. The main obstacles have been the lack of internet in many communities and the requirement to install a government network connection.

A web-based solution would eliminate the need for a data port connection. It could be expanded to allow remote communities, lawyers, and parties to connect to court proceedings by video. However, it is not as simple as downloading an app.

Court proceedings are different from office meetings. Use by the Court of popular applications like Zoom, Skype and FaceTime would present both connectivity issues and significant data security and privacy concerns unless they were hosted on a secure platform with encrypted connection and access controlled by the Court. For efficient and effective use by the Court, a web-based system will also need to connect with the Court’s audio recording system and include a document management function.

Legislative requirements also impose some limitations on the extent to which technology can be used to replace in-person appearances. While recent amendments to Canada’s Criminal Code expanded the possibilities for remote appearances, they left some ambiguities. Each variation from normal procedure that courts adopt to safeguard the public, court users, and staff and comply with public health advisories about the pandemic requires extensive and careful research to ensure the new procedure is supported by law.

The Court has been part of an ongoing project with other justice sector participants to tackle these challenges and move from our current hardware-based video conferencing system to a web-based system. In the fall of 2019 web-based videoconferencing was included in the BC government’s “Court Digital Transformation Strategy” with a very rough timeline of three to four years. Although there was no funding commitment, representatives from the Court Services Branch of the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Office of the Chief Information Officer, and the Provincial Court have been working on this project for over a year. The team researched videoconferencing systems used in other jurisdictions and liaised with the US National Center for States Courts to determine what product would meet our needs and system requirements.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need for a web-based videoconferencing system for use within the justice system. This need is now a priority and work is underway to test and implement a system as soon as possible. This will improve upon the way in which the Provincial Court is currently hearing urgent matters and will enable the court to conduct more hearings in family, small claims and traffic court cases during the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Court is dealing with as many matters as possible using the existing videoconferencing system and hearing matters by telephone when it’s appropriate.