With the unprecedented spread of a global pandemic, businesses and consumers alike find themselves at an eerie halt – and the legal field is no exception. Courts are closed, deadlines continued, and cases put on hold. People find themselves connecting online, holding meetings and conferences virtually. And right now there is a clear separation between those who are prepared and those who aren’t: courts that have already embraced the virtual realm are able to continue business as usual, while those who haven’t have shuttered their doors.
Shannon Salter is one of those who is prepared.
Shannon’s work through the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT), Canada’s first online court system, has transformed the way consumers interact with the legal system. As the keynote speaker at the 2020 Legal Services Corporation Innovation in Technology Conference, she said: “The justice system doesn’t belong to us lawyers and judges. It belongs to the people we serve.” Indeed, the CRT is paving a path for accessibility through online dispute resolution. It provides the access the public wants: it’s simple, intuitive, and free from bureaucratic hurdles.
We recently sat down with Shannon to learn more about her journey in helming the CRT, the principles that drive her, and her thoughts on how online dispute resolution will transform the legal profession.
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what inspired you to pivot from traditional practice into developing legal tech with the Civil Resolution Tribunal?
Shannon Salter: I am a lawyer by training and I started my career in civil litigation at a large firm. After a few years, I realized I wanted to pivot towards more access to justice projects, inspired by the significant latitude the law firm had given me to undertake pro bono work. For this reason, I completed an LLM at the University of Toronto in 2011, focusing on constitutional and access to justice issues, and then was appointed Vice Chair of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal back in British Columbia. From there, the opportunity to chair the Civil Resolution Tribunal came up, although I didn’t fully realize the tribunal was more of a concept than a reality back then. All to say, I came to the role with no legal technology background, but I think one of the strengths lawyers have is the ability to quickly absorb new subject areas and learn how to apply them. I obviously had no idea I would be doing this when I was in law school, but being part of the CRT is my dream job and I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to be part of an incredible team.
UC: Tell us more about the CRT. What is it? How does it work?
SS: The CRT is the first online tribunal in Canada, and the first one we knew of in the world when it opened in 2016. We started resolving condominium disputes, but have expanded every year to include small claims, almost all motor vehicle personal injury disputes, and nonprofit association disputes. The idea is that, using human-centered design, we can build the justice system around the public and account for their needs, challenges and abilities. We give people free legal information and tools, and support them to reach an agreement through negotiation and mediation. Where people can’t agree, tribunal members make a binding decision, which is enforceable as a court order. The whole process is simple, using plain language and step-by-step instructions.
UC: What need or gap in the legal field does the CRT address?
SS: In most countries, including Canada, the civil justice system is not built around the needs of the everyday people who must navigate it. Processes are needlessly cumbersome, complicated, and expensive to navigate. With significant input from community legal advocates who represent the most vulnerable members of the public, the CRT has simplified the resolution of everyday legal disputes by using modern technology and human-centered design to eliminate many access barriers involved in the traditional court system.
UC: Do you think that other courts will eventually end up online as well? Could the CRT be leading the charge to take all dispute resolution mechanisms online?
SS: We’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen courts around the world largely shut down. Throughout this really challenging time, the CRT has remained open and is operating normally, thanks to a distributed remote work force and the provision of online services. However, I think providing online dispute resolution is just one outcome which stems from using human-centered design to analyze justice processes from the perspective of the person who must use them. I think there’s a tremendous role for human centered design in every aspect of the public justice system, and seeing the system from this perspective would lead us to providing more accessible services, both offline and online.
Four years ago, when we opened our virtual doors, there were no other examples in the world of online dispute resolution integrated into the public justice system. Since then, it is exciting to see examples in almost every country and more popping up every month. I do think we’ve reached a tipping point where courts are beginning to embrace a more open-minded approach to justice service delivery. If there is a small silver lining in the devastating COVID-19 situation, I hope it’s that we create an opportunity to transform and modernize the public justice system.
UC: In your recent keynote speech at the Legal Services Corporation’s Innovation in Technology Conference, you noted that technology by itself is not the solution and that change management is an important part of the puzzle. What role do you think change management plays in improving access to justice?
SS: Developing and implementing the technology was far less challenging than the change management necessary to get key stakeholders, like community legal advocates, lawyers, and mediators on our side. The reason this is challenging is as lawyers, we are trained to become quite attached to precedent, the status quo, and time honored traditions, and it can be difficult for us to innovate or imagine creative solutions to access to justice problems. However, lawyers have been a fundamental part of the CRT. They are the volunteers who contribute expert knowledge to our Solution Explorer. Many of them are also our mediators, tribunal members, and senior staff. In my experience, effective change management requires transparency, honesty about what is and isn’t working, asking for and implementing feedback, and proving that you are committed to continuous improvement.
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?
SS: One of my favorite sayings is from Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” When the CRT opened in 2016, besides the Solution Explorer and an online application form, our case management system consisted of two locked down Excel spreadsheets and a SharePoint site. If you are creative, committed, and curious, it doesn’t take much technology or infrastructure for courts and tribunals to make significant changes in the lives of everyday people.
I always encourage courts, tribunals, and other justice system actors to start tomorrow. Start by asking questions of the people you serve. Start user testing forms and processes. Become as curious and as humble as possible about the answers and results. The biggest impediment to reforming the civil justice system is cultural, not logistical. If we adopt a relentless curiosity about how we could design better systems, there is a tremendous potential to make radical change for the better, using many of the tools and resources we already have.
UC: What are your professional goals for the coming year? What projects are you working on?
SS: Right now, we are focused on doing everything we can to ensure access to justice for those affected by COVID-19. We’re also working hard to make sure our own staff and tribunal members have everything they need to get through this difficult time, both personally and professionally. At the same time, we are working to implement a recently-announced expanded jurisdiction over motor vehicle personal injury disputes, starting May 2021. We are also revamping our accessibility features to make sure we are providing cutting edge access to people with disabilities. As always, we are focused on continuous improvement and we will never finish that job.
UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
We’ve Come Too Far to Stop Now.
Innovation abounds and the global pandemic will likely force more change and iron out inefficiencies. There is much work yet to be done. But tools like the CRT and innovators like Shannon give us hope that in time, the legal profession will be prepared to turn every challenge into an opportunity for growth.