COMPUTERS

Quick access to the law

PAT ANNESLEY March 28 1988
COMPUTERS

Quick access to the law

PAT ANNESLEY March 28 1988

Quick access to the law

COMPUTERS

On June 29, 1987, a Victoria provincial court judge found an unemployed man guilty of sexually assaulting his four-year-old daughter and sentenced him to two years in prison and three years’ probation. The Crown attorney appealed the sentence as inadequate. Then, this past January, Catharine MacMillan, a Court of Appeal law clerk, began a search for related cases. Seated in front of a computer terminal in the Vancouver Law Courts building, MacMillan tapped into a new information-storage system called the Sentencing Data Base. She emerged 20 minutes later with a printout that documented more than a dozen relevant sexual-assault sentences that the appellate court had either confirmed, altered or overturned during the previous 10 years. Last month the Court of Appeal increased the convicted man’s prison sentence to five years—a term consistent with previous sentences for similar offences. The case marked one of the first instances in Canada in which computers were applied as such a highly sophisticated judicial tool.

Part of a three-year multimilliondollar project launched in 1986 by IBM and the University of British Columbia to explore computer applications in law, the Sentencing Data Base went into operation in January. Its supporters say that, as well as saving valuable research time, the system also has strong potential as an aid in eliminating disparities in sentencing and avoiding long and often costly delays in the judicial process. Still, the move to introduce more computerization into the law has caused some uneasiness among members of British Columbia’s legal and judiciary communities. While a few lawyers object to an anticipated loss of revenue, some judges have expressed concern that easy access to precedents and points of law might pre-empt more properly considered opinions.

The first system of its kind in Canada—indeed, according to its developers, one of the first in the world—the database is still in its introductory stage but is already accessible to more than 100 judges and their aides, many in the Vancouver area. By September the system is expected to be accessible on a dial-up basis to any judge or lawyer with a personal computer—not only in British Columbia but worldwide. Its proponents call it the flagship of a system that could be adapted

to even the most specialized areas of law. The current version of the database contains, as well as the several years of sentencing information, a file on evidential and procedural law as it applies to sentencing, and a file on current B.C. resources for housing and treating offenders, broken down into five different regions. The main computer—an IBM 9375 Model 60 unit capable of storing the entire UBC law li-

brary—is located at the UBC law school. The initial seven terminals are housed in court buildings in Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Cloverdale, Kamloops and Nanaimo.

Once the full system is in place, its developers say, legal tasks that would normally take two weeks could be accomplished in 10 minutes. As a result, says overall project director Robert Franson, the Sentencing Data Base and similar systems would mean that the kind of extensive research that only large, successful legal firms can afford will be available to lawyers with clients of modest means. Declared Franson: “It is a great equalizer.” In addition, each search will cost about $20—a reasonable fee, says John Hogarth, the UBC professor who designed the system. Added Hogarth: “Twenty bucks is pretty cheap if you’re going to save two weeks’ work.” Despite the low fees, Hogarth says that the system

will be self-supporting within three or four years.

Still, the timesaving aspects are worrying some lawyers, who generally charge their clients by the hour. Hogarth says that a few have expressed concern about the potential impact on their incomes. As for judges, most of the 100 who have had the opportunity to use the computerized system have said that they support it, although some had reservations about the system’s eventual effect on the judiciary process. Said B.C. Chief Justice Nathaniel Nemetz: “These are not automatic judging machines. Each case has to be decided on its own facts. This is only a guide—a tool that saves time

and makes for greater certainty.” Despite the misgivings that some lawyers and judges have expressed, the Sentencing Data Base’s most ardent supporters include people with the stature and influence to assure its prospects. One is Mr. Justice Allen Linden, president of the Ottawa-based Law Reform Commission of Canada. In February Linden visited Vancouver and saw the system in action. He told Maclean’s: “It is spectacular. It is breathtaking.” Added Linden: “My

dream is that it could be available right across the country. It is the very kind of guidance and information that is needed to improve decisions.” In sum, Linden said that the Sentencing Data Base would contribute as much to law reform and the improvement of justice as anything that has ever been done in the field.

— PAT ANNESLEY in Vancouver

PAT ANNESLEY