Cyberjustice – the future of justice? A visit to University of Montreal’s Cyberjustice lab.

Shortly after arriving at University of Montreal’s Faculty of Law, I am escorted into a long and narrow observation room. End-to-end tables in the darkened space support two banks of monitors, tended to by a hushed but friendly staff. Across the two-way glass, a mock trial unfolds in a courtroom that is specially designed for research and experiments.

I have reached the Cyberjustice lab: a globally-unique project in scope and in size, dedicated to the study of technology’s implications for access to justice.


Technology on (mock) trial

When my eyes adjust, I notice first the many screens throughout the courtroom – behind the bench, on the walls, and facing the bench. Next, Cyberjustice lab coordinator Karine Gentelet points out the large tablets embedded in the desk or bench of each trial participant.

Cyberjustice lab coordinator Karine Gentelet

Cyberjustice lab coordinator Karine Gentelet

A total of 6 video cameras occupy different vantages in the courtroom: one facing the judge, another facing the witness stand, and two facing each counsel’s desk. A document camera is on the clerk’s table.

In a room adjacent to the observation area—demonstrating one area of Cyberjustice lab research—someone is producing the trial by directing the cameras and creating the product of all the AV input points.

Gesturing to the producer, Gentelet remarks, “ What you see here represents the hypothesis of a collective research project: what would qualify someone to ‘produce’ a trial? How is objectivity measured and controlled?...It’s comparable to neutrality in journalism.


Someone ‘producing’ a trial as part of a Cyberjustice lab research project

Despite anyone’s best efforts, as people, we all make editorial choices about what to include or exclude when curating content.”

This gives me pause for a moment as I consider what an immense responsibility a producer role would be in a real trial, and the vigilance that making conscientious editing choices would require.

Throughout my visit, I’m given many windows like these into how deeply complex and nuanced the research questions undertaken by the Cyberjustice lab are—all rooted in the overarching question: what happens when traditional processes meet new technologies?


Critical to exploring these with diligence is a diverse team of interdisciplinary specialists who work together to design and execute Cyberjustice lab projects. So that I might better appreciate the factors at work for Cyberjustice lab researchers evaluating protocols in using technology, Gentelet kindly walks me through a couple of hypothetical scenarios.

First, she tells me to imagine someone who is incarcerated and alone while waiting for judgment via videoconference. In this particular facility, this individual is faced by a whole wall of monitors, an intimidating (and possibly oppressive-feeling) experience.

Then she layers on another factor to demonstrate the huge difference basic logistics and equipment configuration can make. “What if the court had only a single camera— so everyone in the courtroom, including the defendant’s legal representation, was standing side-by-side with the judge to fit within the frame?”

The Cyberjustice lab works with researchers in Australia who are currently exploring the use of 3D and holographic animations in the decision process of jury members. Gentelet notes that the emergence of this technology and the accompanying ethics questions are similar to those that came up when video started to become more widely available.

How does actually seeing a crime in progress affect presumption of innocence? Could seeing something like a violent crime three-dimensionally through a hologram projector result in an experience for jurors that could be so visceral it might be prejudicial?

The paper ‘Gateways to Justice’—released by Australian researchers and available through the Cyberjustice lab website —included recommendations that spaces should be designed with their ultimate uses in mind. Some of the factors noted within as consequential are: comfort of participants, amenability to good, unbroken sound and an atmosphere conducive to high visual quality. A key aim of this research was to ensure the mechanisms of remotely-administered justice would not adversely impact the perception of remote participants held by the court.

Gentelet, a sociologist, was involved with research projects on Indigenous legal culture and Aboriginal justice prior to joining the Cyberjustice lab project. She notes that existing research in this area has often suffered from a limited scope that has not been interdisciplinary enough, or has lacked for more direct involvement with legal professionals.

For these reasons, among international experts on the roster of Cyberjustice lab project collaborators are:

  • judges and lawyers, who provide oversight, legal input, engage in research and participate in mock trials
  • IT engineers, who do application and software design and development
  • architects, who design spaces, including courtrooms and remote witness spaces
  • sociologists  and historians, who participate in research design and specialize in sociology and history of the law
  • anthropologists who examine the rituals of justice
  • user experience (Ux) designers, who provide expertise on how people interact with technology and what creates ‘user-friendly’ experiences
  • information architects, who structure information to be intuitive as possible
  • psychologists to evaluate and compare different experiences of participants.
  • Partner organizations like: Ministère de la justice du Québec, the Canadian Bar Association, Regroupement des organismes de justice alternative du Québec (ROJAQ), the Canadian Centre for Court Technology (CCCT-CCTJ), Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), Center for Legal & Court Technology at William & Mary School of Law, crids (centre de recherche, information, droit et société) and ihej (institute des hautes etudes sur la justice), among others.

Everything produced by the lab is open-source. The Cyberjustice lab wants the legal community to not only benefit from their work; they want legal professionals to experience the results, experiment with their products, and provide feedback to support further development.

The Cyberjustice lab courtroom

Access to Cyberjustice 

Technologies like videoconferencing, which has already been in use in Ontario for 14 years (see sidebar) can expedite administration of justice and reduce resources required to cover long distances or prevent security issues arising from transportation. According to the Gateways paper, for some vulnerable witness (like child witnesses or victims of a traumatic crime) being removed from a trial setting can also reduce the psychological burden of giving testimony.

To people outside of  the legal profession, legal processes are often mysterious and incomprehensible. So from an access to justice perspective, says Gentelet, interacting with the law across technologies that are familiar to people has the potential to mitigate some of the challenges of being an outsider in a highly formalized and ritualized environment.

Countries like Canada that are home to rural and geographically-diverse populations that face specific access to justice challenges may be particularly suited to benefit from innovation in emerging research and well-designed protocols for technology use in justice.

Right now, the Cyberjustice lab is working on software and applications, and is in the midst of concurrent research projects that focus on moving forward with more technology use in justice, the rituals involved in justice proceedings, and questions of security of information.

The lab is also in the process of developing further studies, including one focused on how legal technology could be used to improve access to justice for marginalized communities.

The future of Cyberjustice

The Cyberjustice lab project is three years into a seven-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). In the current climate of rapid technological change, Gentelet says, there is no shortage of demand internationally for research on the impact of technology on access to justice. Case in point: during my visit, some Cyberjustice researchers are in Washington, D.C., presenting as guest experts on a World Bank panel on law, justice and technology.

According to her, many countries in the world are rushing to integrate new technology into legal proceedings as soon as they become available in the interest of efficiency. Unfortunately, this has often taken place in a haste that has precluded time or resources being dedicated to exploring the impact of these technologies—for better or worse—prior to activation.

“Technology is not neutral. Technology has impacts that are positive and that are negative and all of these require analysis,” Says Gentelet. “At the Cyberjustice lab, we are neither for nor against technology in justice: we are here to evaluate technology before its use, and hope to be able to map these effects prior to implementation.”

The Cyberjustice lab is located in the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Law. For more information on their work and research, please visit their website. You can also like Cyberjustice on Facebook.

Q&A with the Justice Video Network of Ontario

Does Ontario make use of CCTV and/or videoconferencing in trials?

Video conferencing have been in use in Ontario courts for nearly 14 years. Traditionally, videoconferencing has been used on the criminal side of both the Ontario Courts of Justice (OCJ) and the Superior Courts of Justice (SCJ) for various appearances and court requirements, most frequently for video remands. Otherwise, there are a number of other uses such as:  bail hearings, WASH court, trial court, evidence presentation, and first appearance.

Are there specially-designed spaces for this?

Video courts are designed for video conferences or are later retrofitted to accommodate the technologies.  We work with various facilities groups and building architects to design for a professional videoconferencing and audio-visual space.

Are there programs in Ontario dedicated to research and development of this kind of technology use?

No, not that I am aware of.

Does Ontario use remote technologies in instances of witnesses at a far distance, or ‘vulnerable’ witnesses?

Yes, we are able to accommodate remote witnesses during trials. We are also developing computer-based services for remote users.  In terms of vulnerable witnesses we require court locations we design to have this type of video capability.

Colleen Westendorf

About Colleen Westendorf

Bilingual digital communications specialist at LAO, Colleen has previously worked for CBC/Radio-Canada and the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. Colleen grew up in Vancouver, spent three charmed years in Montreal, and is now glad to call Toronto home.