Canadian Lawyer

September 2020

The most widely read magazine for Canadian lawyers

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Page 49 of 51

48 OPINION BACK PAGE COVID-19 forces tribunals to adapt Many tribunals have reconceptualized A2J with a renewed vision and are using this to make fundamental changes to their systems COVID-19 HAS changed the way lawyers and the administrative justice system operate. It removed the option of in-person hearings and service, forcing us to pivot our work to less traditional environments. Zoom, Skype and other technology have become much more important now that they are the fore- most ways of conducting business. The pandemic has made it clear that we have to do more to ensure everyone — including the most vulnerable in society — is able to access administrative justice. Access to justice was a problem before the pandemic; now, it's an acute concern high- lighted by months of justice system delays. The good news is that tribunals are adapting. Many tribunals have reconceptualized A2J with a renewed vision and are using this to make fundamental changes to their systems. We are all working with limited resources and must collaborate and share our best practices instead of working in silos if we want to innovate. One example of this co-operation is the Council of Canadian Administrative Tribunals, which has launched an online COVID-19 repository. It aggregates articles, decisions addressing virtual hearings, forms, guidelines and national and international best practices into one location with easy access. Another example is the Social Security Tribunal, which has revamped many of its processes to be more client-centric. It created a strategic A2J thinktank called the A2J Lab, with representation from a mixture of staff and federal appointees across the Tribunal's departments. The thinktank unites ideas of people from across the tribunal — from IT and communications to policy and tribunal members — with everyone considering how their work promotes A2J and bringing different perspectives, ideas and expertise to finding creative solutions. It recognizes that incorporating new ideas from different levels of our judicial organizations will lead to better justice, promote user-experience, push ahead with a culture of continuous improvement and ensure that we apply an A2J lens to all of the tribunal's work. The Social Security Tribunal is a good example of the great pandemic pivot, because it is uniquely structured to respond to the changes COVID-19 forced on us. It was designed to operate remotely. Most hearings are conducted by teleconference or videocon- ference. Shortly after the pandemic began, it introduced Zoom hearings and new online forms. A significant challenge was the registry staff, which is vital to the movement of files and direct communication with appellants. Most of these staff members were not set up to work remotely, so the tribunal acted quickly to change that. Now, it can operate with its staff and members working remotely across the entire country. One of the lessons from COVID-19 is that none of us has every answer. That's why it's so important to build networks with other tribu- nals and organizations. We have to learn about what others are doing and share our experi- ences. Resources are a significant barrier to restructuring tribunals and increasing A2J, so if there is a way to share what we are doing and learn from others, we have an obligation to Canadians to try. Measuring our progress is essential to gauging whether we are making positive changes and increasing A2J. This requires effort and cost, but the informa- tion gleaned from the data supports better information on increasing demand, costs and user experiences, which in turn leads to better policies, tribunals and justice. Without measurement, there's no way to be sure we are making a difference. Building on the work of Access to Justice BC and the Department of Justice Canada's Access to Justice Index, the Social Security Tribunal designed its own measurement framework. Early results have highlighted opportunities for improvement that will immediately affect users, such as plain-lan- guage communication and a more accessible website. With this new data, the tribunal has shifted its focus to making those changes. Measurement of our A2J successes and failures affects policy, available programs and new ideas. COVID-19 forced changes across the entire justice system, but it also brought into focus the need to ensure mean- ingful A2J for everyone and the part we play in innovating our systems to respond to that need. If we share our ideas, encourage and include new voices in the discussion, create client-centric processes that respond to user needs and measure our successes and failures, we have an opportunity to change the face of administrative justice and create accessible quasi-judicial bodies that all can access. Candace Salmon is a lawyer and member of the Social Security Tribunal and the Council of Canadian Administrative Tribunals. "Access to justice was a problem before the pandemic; now, it's an acute concern highlighted by months of justice system delays."

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