Quebec budget injects more than $1 billion to modernize justice system

More than $1.4 billion has been set aside by the Quebec government in its latest budget to modernize the justice system, its courthouses and detention centres, a move that has elated a relieved Quebec legal community.

“We’re absolutely pleased with the budget,” remarked Paul-Matthieu Grondin, the bâtonnier or president of the Barreau du Québec. “It’s a major step forward for justice in the province. We were stuck in the 1970s. Now with the new investments, hopefully we will get it right and hopefully we can get to something that is paperless.”

The Quebec Chamber of Notaries is also pleased with the new investments but disheartened that the organization was not consulted by the Quebec government. “We cannot hide our disappointment with the total absence of notaries or the Chamber of Notaries in the government strategy to improve access to justice,” said François Bibeau, the Chamber’s president in a press release.

The new monies, while a welcome development, nonetheless still represents only 1.3 per cent share of of the $108.7 billion the Quebec government intends to spend in the coming year, a percentage that is in line with previous years. In fiscal year 2016-17, $884.1 million of the provincial budget was devoted to the justice system, a drop of nearly $6 million compared to fiscal 2015-2016, but considerably more than the $762.9 million that was spent in fiscal 2012-2013, according to a 49-page report on the justice system published by the Quebec legal society in February 2018.

According to tabled budget documents, $139 million is earmarked to introduce innovative practices, $289 million to bring the justice system in line with the latest technology, and $72 million  to enable the justice system’s principal stakeholders to communicate with each more effectively. As well, $580 million will be invested in courthouses: $265 million of which will be used to keep Quebec’s courthouses in “good” condition, and $315 million to improve existing courthouses and build new ones. On top of that, $420 million has been allotted towards expanding and improving existing detention centres.

Now, the hard work begins, says Dominic Jaar, Ad. E., Chair of the Board of Directors and former CEO of the Canadian Legal Information Institute (Canlii). Memories of the Système intégré d’information de la justice debacle are still fresh in Quebec’s legal community. Expected to be in effect in 2007, the integrated justice system management project promised to improve the exchange of information between stakeholders in the Quebec justice system but was abandoned in 2012 after an estimated $75 million was poured into the fiasco.

“The new investments are badly needed, and many have been waiting for it for years,” said Jaar, national leader, forensic technology services at KPMG LLP. “However, it does also raise a number of important questions mainly because in the past an injection of funds did not lead to necessarily successful projects.”

Jaar is crossing his fingers that the monies will be allocated to incrementally develop small applications that will serve defined purposes as opposed to calling for a request for proposal (RFPs) to develop a large-scale project that does everything. Then as the small applications have been rolled out and adopted by different stakeholders, Jaar says then is the time to bridge them together to make it an overall digital or electronics judicial system.

“The biggest challenge for the government in investing these funds is to make sure that they get what they need, and from a technical standpoint often they don’t know what they need,” said Jaar. “They haven’t been exposed to what has happened elsewhere, what works, what does not, whereas a number of companies have and could bring that expertise to the table.”

Ideally the provincial government would introduce a public-private partnership, or a cooperative arrangement between the public and private sector, into the mix, added Jaar. But the way that RFPs are structured by the government complicates matters because the lowest bidder wins the tender – and that is problematic. While providers may end up delivering the least inexpensive solution, they often try to aggressively to reduce its costs in order to win the proposal and therefore cut corners as much as possible to make sure “they barely meet the criteria in the RFP requirements” put forward by the government. Instead, Jaar recommends that the government forge long-term partnerships with developers who will be paid based on what they developed and the success of what they delivered.

“You then have a provider that is committed to deliver not only the solution but to make sure that it is adopted and reaches the objectives for which it was developed,” explained Jaar. “The government has developed procurement rules that apply well to certain industries. But when it comes to technology, these rules stop working because what you are doing involves much more than pushing snow. It involves many stakeholders, it involves change management, it involves reviewing processes that have been put in place for years, and it involves dealing with legacy technologies that are in place. There are so many different ramifications that it is way too complex to go just with the cheapest bidder.”

The Quebec Bar intends to put in place a team in the expectation it will be invited to collaborate, and act as consultants, with the Quebec Ministry of Justice.

“We all hope that we have learned from past errors,” said Grondin. “Is that a guarantee of success? Of course not. But the reality is that there was no other choice. We have to move forward. In 2018, more than ever, we are aware that there have been fiascos in the past and that it is best to take it step-by-step. I hope that principle is followed.”

But Jaar warns that lawyers are just one of many stakeholders involved in the justice system, and that much of the investments should be targeting the court’s back office where financial resources have to be poured into to develop electronic registries.

This story was originally published in The Lawyer’s Daily.

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