A Canadian A2J technology deficit?

With all the excitement of a cosplay buff just ahead of Comic-Con, I anxiously awaited the Law via the Internet conference held in early October at Cornell University in picturesque Ithaca, NY.

The 3 day event included the annual get together of the Free Access to Law Movement, CanLII’s peer group from around the world, as well as 30+ papers, presentations and panel discussions from a highly varied cross-section of legal information innovators.  Sporting attire appropriate to the occasion (I went with a look that screamed I’d-prefer-to-dress-like-I-have-tenure-but-I-just-came-from-a-grant-request-meeting) I took it all in with a mix of delight and dissatisfaction.

On the positive side, in every session I attended and in every video replay I watched a couple weeks later I found great inspiration in the ideas and actions of the presenters. Indeed, I even drew ideas from watching my own presentation – henceforth I will no longer turn my head to the right when presenting as my left-side bald spot gives off a nasty glare on camera.

That’s a great idea! Let’s form a committee to study it!

On the negative side, so many of the projects described and ideas advanced are easily achievable within the competencies of Canadian legal information professionals but (at least to my knowledge) are largely absent, or at the very least, well below the radar. Is the Canadian propensity to place undue faith in “studies” and “blue ribbon panels” part of the reason?

In both form and substance, the LexisNexis e-book “Educating the digital lawyer” captures brilliantly the basis of my dissatisfaction.  I dove right into this text immediately upon learning about it through Connie Crosby’s mid-November Slaw post and, just as at the LVI2012 conference, I was presented with an extensive array of public interest and commercially savvy digital innovations that are entirely within reach of talented Canadian developers but not yet widely prevalent. To be fair, there are lots of great initiatives underway in Canada, but, as William Gibson might say, the digital legal information future is already here, it’s just not widely distributed.

The different levels of sophistication were evident at the recent (and excellent) Canadian Forum on Court Technology conference and a glance at “Report of the Subcommittee on Global Review of the Federal Court Rules” shows the commitment to “further study” is alive and well. See, for example, Recommendation 24:

If the Rules Committee accepts some or all of the recommendations in this report, it should establish a new subcommittee to examine implementation issues.

What are we waiting for?

It is not my intent to be dismissive of courts and the proper exercise of due diligence in overseeing and driving change in the administration of justice. No, my dissatisfaction is reserved for the rest of us and our collective lack of imagination in working within the system more efficiently irrespective of the system’s rate of change. As examples in the LVI2012 presentations and in the LexisNexis e-book demonstrate, we don’t have to wait until everyone else is ready. Here are two innovations, each of which were featured in both fora, that could easily be adapted to the Canadian context or could inspire made-in-Canada innovations.

A2J Author

Developed by CALI, in association with Chicago-Kent College of Law, this freely available tool permits the creation by legal aid attorneys, courts other of “self-guided A2J interviews for use by unrepresented litigants and others in need […that] walk users through a step-by-step question and answer process, which, in the end, creates an (often otherwise confusing) legal form.” This tool, currently running over  600 active interviews from dozens of organizations – including some Canadian ones – was also discussed by presenters at the Canadian court technology conference.

Consequences Calculator

Developed by Columbia Law School, this free tool aids in “legal research for judges, attorneys and legal academics” to demonstrate what happens following conviction under sections of the New York Penal Law.  With point and click simplicity, “once you’ve selected a charge, the [immigration and social housing eligibility] consequences of that charge will appear in a three column break-down on the right that reflects the probability that a consequence will attach to a conviction.”

Understanding law is hard, but following process shouldn’t be

So what’s my point?

Quite simply, small technology projects can have big impacts and we don’t have to look very far to identify the problems or the tools that would help.

In a recent Federal Court ruling, the Honourable Mr. Justice Hughes, himself a member of the aforementioned subcommittee, refused a request from the defendant (Her Majesty the Queen) to strike a Statement of Claim, and instead granted the plaintiffs (5 self-represented prisoners in a federal penitentiary) a 6-month stay to, among other things, “secure competent legal counsel”. Justice Hughes noted that despite the evident legal research effort undertaken by the plaintiffs in bringing their action, the pleadings were deficient in nearly all respects and it was not even clear that the grievances outlined in the claim were a proper matter for consideration by the courts. At paragraph 7, Justice Hughes observes as follows:

[… ]Legal training involves more than just reading materials and copying from precedents. It requires a thorough knowledge of the law and how it is practised, and the exercise of experienced judgment in determining, for instance, whether a claim should be made to the Courts or to some other person or tribunal; how that claim fits within the principles of law; and how that claim is to be set forth properly in the relevant documents in which a claim is submitted. While many people can wield a knife, not all are surgeons. While many people can read Rules of Practice and legal texts, not all are barristers or solicitors. It takes not only knowledge, but thorough knowledge, exercised through experienced judgment to get it right.

Continuing at paragraph 11:

[…] What [the pleadings] must set forth are:

  • the precise circumstances at issue: the who, what, when and where relevant events leading to the complaint took place
  • the resulting effect
  • the standard required by law
  • the manner in which those circumstances failed to live up to the standards required by law
  • what harm resulted

While many Canadian courts and public legal education organizations provide precisely this manner of guidance to self-represented litigants in a variety of formats, are any using an A2J Author or similar interview-style document developer to do so? If not, how difficult would it be to take the above 2 paragraphs of guidance offered by Justice Hughes and build an A2J interview that spits out a Rules-compliant Statement of Claim? Not very, and although the interview itself cannot define the “standard required by law”, it can very clearly focus the attention of the self-rep litigant on the issue at an appropriate juncture.

If the plaintiffs had the benefit of the right tool to develop their pleadings, would the Federal Court be waiting on a third iteration of a Statement of Claim? What savings in time, resources and funding would accrue to the parties and to the system if simple tools were deployed early in the process?

Even if you can’t fix it all, you can still make it easier

A final take-away from LVI2012 comes courtesy of Ed Walters, CEO of U.S. legal publisher Fastcase. Ed reminds us that each player in the legal information or education realm brings content, a service, a product, an expertise or something upon which others can enhance and add value.

No single entity or group can serve all needs or solve all problems, so collaboration and empowerment are key. Over the coming months, CanLII hopes to develop capabilities and services that will facilitate and spur third-party innovation. What excites us most is knowing that so many others are ready to explore new ways of solving old problems that we can’t begin to anticipate the range of innovation to come.

I have every expectation that 2013 will be the year Canada erases the A2J technology deficit.

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This article was first published on Slaw.ca

Carl – a new name in the promotion of access to justice

Call me Carl.

For a week in August, I played the role of law student intern to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. My kids were thrilled because it meant they could call me Carl – just like the student intern to Major Monagram on the Disney XD cartoon Phineas and Ferb. While I was not blessed with a theme song like my namesake, I did get a great experience and possibly an early peek on New York state’s latest advance in the promotion of access to justice.

Carl the InternIt was only weeks after my experience that I read of New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and his order implementing a mandatory 50-hour pro bono requirement for applicants to the New York state bar set to take effect January 1, 2015. Like Carl, my internship earned me “college credit” in the context of my LL.M. studies in law and technology at the University of Ottawa (I confess to not knowing Carl’s major).

Since my arrival at CanLII, in each fall and winter term I have hosted students from U of Ottawa’s law and tech JD program (which I suppose would make me Major Monogram). Before learning of the New York initiative I hadn’t thought to frame these arrangements, from either side of the intern process, in the context of improving access to justice. I have been somewhat short sighted in failing to equate student contributions to a not-for-profit with access-to-justice imperatives to the pro bono work students do in the form of direct advocacy in legal clinics.

We are well aware of the benefits student legal clinics like Community and Legal Aid Serivces Programme (CLASP), Student Legal Services Edmonton, Pro Bono Student Canada and others across the country bring to the communities they serve. Clinic work like this is a mainstay of the law school experience for the contributions made, the values instilled and the practical experience gained. Logically, work of this nature will count toward the 50-hour requirement in New York, but were I desirous of writing the New York state bar exams in 2015, would my time at the LII count? It appears so.  In fact, so would the work undertaken by CanLII’s interns past and present (Hi Azrin, David and Adam!) should they apply to the New York state bar.

You can find the directive, § 520.16 Pro Bono Requirement for Bar Admission, here in the New York Law Journal, but allow me to hit the highlights:

  • applicants “shall complete at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono service prior to filing an application for admission”
  • pro bono service is “supervised pre-admission law-related work” for the benefit of persons of limited means, not-for-profits, or “individuals, groups or organizations seeking to secure or promote access to justice, including, but not limited to, the protection of civil rights, civil liberties or public rights”; as well as specified work within the public service (including courts, legislatures, government). “Partisan political activity”, however, is expressly excluded.
  • authorized supervisors include law professors, lawyers, and judges
  • permitted locations include “any state or territory of the United States, the District of Columbia, or any foreign country”
  • the relevant time frame for completion is from the start of your legal studies to the date of your NY state bar application.

I am struck and impressed by the flexibility and the reasonableness of these requirements. As Judge Lippman notes:

“If you build houses for Habitat for Humanity, that doesn’t count, but if you do legal work for a non-profit like Habitat for Humanity, that could count.”

I also share the Chief Judge’s sentiment that the requirement “will set the pace in the country. On every level it makes sense, for new lawyers, for the profession as a whole, for the legal services providers, for the judges.”

Professor Adam Dodek has written previously about the prospect of seeing the NY model of mandatory pro bono imported into Canada. He and others reported on the trepidation and concern surrounding the whether, how and when it could or should occur in Canada. Quite frankly, after reading the specific requirement recently adopted I have zero concern about negative effects of pursuing this course in Canada – whether through a court mandate or a voluntary move on the part of the law societies. I also feel there is nothing stopping the legal community from moving ahead without waiting the courts or regulators to address the question.

Why wait?

A 50 hour requirement over the course of a 3 year law program is nothing, just ask the CLASP, SLS or PBSC volunteers how many hours they put in over a single month. For students inclined towards a different environment than a public facing legal clinic or to whom formalized internships are unavailable, the challenge for the student will not be in finding 50 hours, but in finding a person and organization ready to let them make their contribution. The greatest and perhaps only hurdle to following New York’s lead rests with those organizations and individuals who will need to make room for “Carl”.

It takes time to provide clear direction, valuable experience and a supportive environment to a student intern. Not quite the burden of supervising an articling student, of course, but a serious endeavour nonetheless. For those of us engaged in activities that seek to advance causes of social justice, whether as part of an organization or as an individual representing a single client, it is worth examining our capacity to take advantage of willing and able student resources.

My ultimate point is this: as anyone who has done it or supervised it knows, “pro bono” work by law students is quite simply a good thing and all students should have an opportunity to engage.  We need not wait for top down solutions and as many formal and informal relationships already exist through which law schools facilitate student placements, I would like to think we are all capable of doing more.

Carl stands ready to serve, will you provide the opportunity?

[This post originally appeared on Slaw.ca]

Lost in Space – but found on Facebook

This is a story of fascinating facts captured in a legal judgment and of the power of Facebook to circulate legal information.  It was first published in slightly modified form on Canada’s preeminent legal blog: Slaw.ca

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Lacking The Right Stuff, Sylvio Langevin finds his Galaxy Quest over just as he launched his Mission to Mars. With the prospect of A New Hope subject to leave of the Men (and women) in Black, perhaps he should seek Serenity, abandon his quest and make The Voyage Home.

In a Langevin (Re), a decision issued on February 22nd but published on CanLII on February 29th, the Quebec Superior Court declared Langevin a “quarrelsome litigant” and barred him from bringing any further action without leave.

That order alone, though infrequently issued and a factually and legally interesting part of the judgment, was not the reason the decision became – in a matter of hours – the most consulted case on CanLII for 2012. No, the reason for the instant notoriety was the pleadings filed by Langevin that prompted the Court’s action.

In a nutshell, Langevin claimed ownership of Earth.

And Mercury, Venus, Jupiter (and its four largest moons), Saturn and Uranus as well.

Recognizing a gap in his request, he sought at the hearing, to amend his pleading to include a claim for Neptune, Pluto and all the space in between each planet across the galaxy.

Finally, he invited the Court to take the opportunity to overturn a December 19, 2011 ruling wherein his prior claims of ownership over Mars and the moon were found to lack legal basis and summarily rejected.

Despite being unopposed (Langevin submitted that the only suitable respondent, God, being incorporeal, was not “invitable” as a respondent), the Court denied the appeal and dismissed all the new claims.

Finally, as these were but the latest in a long line of “vexatious or quarrelsome” applications (to borrow from the language of Quebec’s Code of Civil Procedure), the Court found no difficulty in barring Langevin from instituting further proceedings.

Captivating content aside, how did word of the case spread?

From the moment it was published on CanLII, Langevin (Re) had been racking up page views on CanLII all day. One thousand by 2:00 p.m., nearly three thousand by 4:00 p.m. It ended the day with a remarkable 9,007 page views! In 2011, that would have been sufficient to make it the 4th most consulted case of the year.

Later that evening I turned to the task of preparing this article, convinced that in addition to discussing the highlights of M. Langevin’s efforts to secure dominion over our solar system, I would also cast a light on the role Twitter played in spreading awareness of the decision. Earlier in the week, I was able to trace nearly one third of Richard v. Time Inc. 2012 SCC 8 (CanLII) page views to Twitter links, so surely it had to be a factor here.

Making use of online toys Revisit and Screencast-o-matic, I created this 2 minute video demonstrating how 6 hours worth of tweets (27), retweets (12) and mentions (9) containing links to the decision contributed to the public’s enormous interest. [Note: 10 seconds of the video gives you the idea]

But when I looked at CanLII’s internal referrer site and page view stats, the facts didn’t bear out the theory. Despite attaining “tweet” levels between 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. generally only seen for the hottest Supreme Court of Canada decisions, actual page views of the decision were several orders of magnitudes higher than growth in referrals from twitter would suggest.

Then I remembered Hubert David’s piece in Slaw from couple months ago discussing Educaloi’s social media experience. Hubert pointed out that Twitter usage in Quebec is well below national levels and that Facebook reigns supreme. Sure enough, that was the key.

In all of January 2012, there were 2,851 CanLII page views attributable to Facebook page referrals. Between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on February 29th, the day the decision was posted, 2,201 CanLII page views were derived from people clicking links from within Facebook. Over that same time period total views of Langevin increased by 2,691.

This was no coincidence.

Over the next two days as total page views of the judgment approached 15,000, Facebook referrals to CanLII grew at a rate that would imply at least a two-thirds contribution.

Facebook was unquestionably the single most important factor in leading the public to the text of the decision.

Lessons learned

So in the final analysis Langevin (Re) taught us the following:

  1. You can’t claim ownership of the solar system.
  2. At the very least, should you attempt to do so, try a common law jurisdiction where you might be able to base your case on equity. Alberta, perhaps? Try the Judicature Act, ss. 8 or 15.
  3. If you poke a Court enough times, they will poke back.
  4. Social media in general and Facebook in particular can play a significant role in spreading legal information and awareness.

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About CanLII:

The Canadian Legal Information Institute was officially founded in 2001. Funded by Canada’s lawyers and notaries for the benefit of all, CanLII provides free access to legal information. In 2011, CanLII received nearly 7 million site visits and delivered over 81 million page views to users. With one million documents across over 200 collections, CanLII is closer than ever to achieving the dreams of its founders to become the best place for lawyers and all Canadians to consult Canadian law.

Follow CanLII on Twitter @CanLII. Like us on Facebook.com/CanLII.org.

The author, Colin Lachance, serves as CanLII’s President and CEO.