Globe and Mail

Today's judge chats on-line

A covert computer network assists some of Canada's most distinguished jurists

KIRK MAKIN
JUSTICE REPORTER
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, December 13, 2000

OTTAWA -- As a rookie judge on the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, Mr. Justice Michel Bastarache felt nervous and isolated when confronted by his first family-law case.

His colleagues were equally unfamiliar with the field, and the court had no law clerks. Judge Bastarache fired off a request for help to a handful of computer-savvy judges who had just launched a judges-only computer network.

Minutes later, Ontario Court of Appeal Judge Rosalie Abella solved his problem by forwarding a case decided that same day in her court.

"Everyone on my court was astonished that I came up with it so rapidly," recalled Judge Bastarache, who is now on the Supreme Court of Canada. "It was extremely helpful, because I had no one to talk to."

The primitive network Judge Bastarache tapped into that day in 1995 has grown rapidly into the JAIN system -- a sophisticated, underground network virtually unknown to the outside world.

Linking the vast majority of the Canadian judiciary, it has ushered in a new era for Canadian judges, who have been transformed into a highly interactive community.
"It has revolutionized the life of a judge," Mr. Justice Robert Carr of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench said. "This is something no one else had even thought of, let alone been able to create."

Comfortable in the knowledge that their system enjoys an extremely high level of security, judges across the country can, at any given time:

Chew over the ramifications of a recent Supreme Court of Canada judgment;

Join a continuing discussion about ethical issues in the "judicial conduct forum;"

Respond with advice or case law to a call for help.

"If I'm stuck for a charge to the jury in the middle of a trial, I can send a message to 796 judges that will arrive within a second," said Judge Carr, chairman of the JAIN steering committee.

The system also provides judges with access to a vast and constantly updated library of speeches, academic papers and Commonwealth case law.

"There is no comparable network in the world," Judge Carr said. "I was at a technology convention in Los Angeles not long ago with about 3,000 delegates, many of them judges, and the Americans were just astonished at how far behind they were."

With one click of a mouse, judges can see a list of every colleague who is on-line. They can designate a message as urgent, private or open. Messages can also be directed exclusively to French-language judges, family-law judges, appellate judges, or those in a particular province.

Judge Bastarache said he sometimes "lurks" in fascination as lower-court brethren debate a Supreme Court ruling he helped write. He has also logged on weeks after an especially difficult ruling to search every critique he can find.

"To me, it breaks a glass ceiling," he said. "I want to be in touch and know whether they agree or disagree. If a ruling wasn't clear this time, next time I can try to clarify it."

JAIN's security system leaves little to chance. Even judges are restricted from roaming through every portion of the network. Provincial court judges, for example, have a system completely separate from that of the approximately 800 federally appointed judges.

Computer trainers must use a dummy network in training sessions rather than JAIN itself, and the system is set up to leave no trace of messages on its hard drive.

While a portion of the judiciary would like to keep the network secret -- indeed, there was lively, on-line debate over the merits of providing information for this article -- Judge Carr said the security risk must be kept in perspective.

"The biggest risk a judge runs is taking a draft judgment home in his briefcase, stopping at Safeway, and leaving it in the trunk," he said.

At its inception in 1995, there were just 15 judges on-line. Membership blossomed after JAIN's founding father, former commissioner of Federal Judicial Affairs Guy Goulard, paved the way for training courses in 1998.

It has become especially valuable to judges in remote regions. Mr. Justice Dan Kennedy of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench recalls becoming a diehard JAIN fan in 1997, when he held court in a fly-in outpost in the far North.

Unsure whether conditional sentences could be imposed in sexual-assault cases, Judge Kennedy sought help. Ontario Court of Appeal Judge Marvin Catzman instantly sent a pertinent ruling "hot of the presses," Judge Kennedy said in an interview.

Copyright © 2000 Globe Interactive