Keeping humans at the centre of the equation

Enabling accessibility in dispute resolution


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Transcript: Enabling citizens with digital


Jon: Hi. Welcome to Shift, PwC Canada’s podcast series, and we’re digging into key digital trends and topics that can make your business transformation a reality. I’m your host, Jon Finkelstein, and I’m also the Creative Director of PwC Canada. Welcome to another episode of Shift.

We are in sunny Vancouver. We've taken it on the road. Thanks for joining. A very exciting podcast today, we are getting into some significant innovation today. And what it takes to be innovative in public sector. I am here with Shannon Salter, Chair of the Civil Resolution Tribunal. Unbelievable. I can't wait to talk about what you're doing because it's super exciting. Welcome to Shift.

Shannon Salter: Thanks very much, John. I'm happy to be here.

Jon: And congratulations for winning V2R in the accelerator category. That is no small feat.

Shannon Salter: We are thrilled on behalf of our entire team. We are so excited.

Jon: What was your reaction when you found out?

Shannon Salter: I was just so excited, and I couldn't wait to be able to share it with my team. They were blown away and very, very excited as well.

Jon: Tell us a little bit about your entry, what it is. What is the Civil Resolution Tribunal?

Shannon Salter: The Civil Resolution Tribunal is an administrative tribunal, and there are many of those across Canada, and 27 of them in BC. Administrative tribunals are kind of like courts in the sense that they create binding decisions on different aspects of people's lives, different disputes. The thing that makes the Civil Resolution Tribunal different is that it's the first online tribunal in Canada. And as far as we knew, it was the first one in the world that was publicly integrated into the justice system.

Jon: I want to repeat that again because in case people didn't quite catch that, the first online tribunal in Canada, and maybe the world. Think about that for a second. That's huge.

Shannon Salter: It's exciting to have seen it go from this idea, this piece of legislation, to a reality. We've now accepted close to 6000 cases. And it's exciting too because we get inquiries every week from different jurisdictions around the world that are closely tracking what we're doing and starting their own projects, so it's kind of an idea whose time has come.

Jon: Unbelievable. So where did the idea come from?

Shannon Salter: I have to be clear. It wasn't my brainchild. It was the brainchild of a very small dedicated team within the Ministry of Justice in British Columbia called the Dispute Resolution Office. And they shepherded through the Civil Resolution Tribunal Act, so a piece of legislation back in 2012. And they did it at a time when online dispute resolution was really very theoretical. There were no examples to follow, and so they took a real risk there. I was appointed in 2014, and that's when we were really ready to start implementing. And now we've got a team of 43 full-time staff members, and we've been resolving disputes for two years.

Jon: Unbelievable. What was the biggest hurdle do you think, to go from this kind of theory, legislation, to making it a reality?

Shannon Salter: Well, there are definitely a lot of challenges along the way. We were both blessed and cursed with this blank slate. There wasn't really a path to follow, and so we had to look at what evidence was out there, what best practices were out there, what research was saying, and try and make the best research based decisions we could along the way. The hardest part by far was change management in the legal community. The legal community is very risk adverse. It's very change adverse. That's the nature of the legal profession. And so winning hearts and minds was really probably the most challenging part and the biggest part of my job for the first couple of years after I was appointed.

Jon: I love the fact that you've taken basically a bricks and mortar. I have dispute, whether it's a condo, or small claims, or whatever, so it's under $5000. Normally, I have to wait for a court date. Normally, in the old world before this, I would have to show up at court. Now you've taken it online. Take me through the steps a little bit about how this works for a person, how this works for BC citizens.

Shannon Salter: Sure. And probably a good starting point is to explain what it is we have jurisdiction over.

Jon: Awesome. Yeah, please.

Shannon Salter: We have jurisdiction over condominium disputes of any amount, so it can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. And these are ordinary neighbor disputes. A big chunk of our population in British Columbia either owns a condo or rents a condo. And until we opened our doors, people had to go to the BC Supreme Court, which was very expensive and time consuming and complicated. And as a result, they just didn't. And so they tended to just have these festering disputes that would chip away at these communities. So we started resolving those disputes in 2016, and then a year later we were given jurisdiction over small claims disputes $5000 and under. And then just a couple of months ago, the government passed legislation to give us jurisdiction next year over most minor motor vehicle accident disputes as well, which is going to be a massive step forward.

So anybody who has those kinds of claims can go to our website at, and the first step is to get more information about their issue. And this is really to help them resolve their dispute without even having to file a claim with our tribunal. They go through something called the solution explorer, which is free and anonymous. And it gives people pretty bite sized bits of plain language legal information, as well as tools like template letters that they can use to resolve the dispute themselves. And it comes from basically asking people questions about their dispute and then giving them answers based on those questions. So it's called an expert system. It's a very basic form of artificial intelligence. But we want people to have some good information when they come into the process to even the playing field between more sophisticated and less sophisticated parties, but also ideally helping them resolve their dispute so that they don't even need to come to us.

Jon: I love the fact that you can avoid filing a claim just by working through what it is. What is it you want to do?

Shannon Salter: Exactly.

Jon: Can you solve this yourself? Here are some tools to try and do it yourself as opposed to feeling the need to actually file something. 

Shannon Salter: That's right. And it's really a preventative step. We know it's best for people in terms of their financial, physical, and mental health not to have a lingering claim in the justice system. But as a society, we're not really taught how to resolve disputes very well. We have a hard time having difficult conversations with neighbors. We don't know how to write letters that sound formal or may have some legal language, so we're really trying to give people those tools. And we think that, even without the tribunal, would help strengthen civil society.

Jon: What kind of things on the condo side are people filing? Is it tenant or owner to owner? Or is it your stereo's too loud, or your dog is barking?

Shannon Salter: It's really all of the above. Most disputes are between condominium boards and owners. But it can also be disputes between owners over noise, or pets, or other things like that. It's complicated because these are really little neighborhoods where people have to share resources, agree on priorities like a budget, paint color for the hallway. How loud is too loud? And so these disputes are really varied, but they tend to be the kind of irritations that people have when they live together in close quarters.

Jon: Unbelievable. I love the fact that you talk about some artificial intelligence. Where did that come from? Tell us more about that because that's ... I mean, having an online tool where people can go and get binding decisions, amazing. And then you're layering on some really advanced tech on top of that.

Shannon Salter: Yeah. The idea of an expert system has been around for quite a long time, and we were really lucky to have Darren Thompson with the Ministry of Justice working on this. And he did a master's in dispute resolution on expert systems, and is probably one of the leading ODR experts in Canada. So we had a lot of expertise to draw on. But the idea is that most people don't want to read 20 pages on condo law. They want a very specific answer to their very specific problem, which you can give them if you ask some questions first, and then give them plain language tools. So everything that we write for the tribunal, whether it's a decision at the end, or the solution explorer content at the front end, is meant to be written at about a grade six reading level so that it's really simple and easy to use for people.

Jon: That's why it resonated with me. But you know, when I watched the solution explorer video, I was really impressed because governments tend to talk to people like they're talking to other governments. I don't know where the language comes from. I mean, for me, I have my Master's in English, and so as a writer I always find it really disconcerting, if you will, when I'm looking at stuff, I don't understand what you're talking about. Why don't you talk to me like a person?

Shannon Salter: Right. And if you can't understand it, imagine how somebody feels who doesn't speak English as a first language, or didn't finish high school, for example. So evidence tells us you have to direct information at about a grade six reading level to make it understandable.

Jon: And I bet they're coming to the website under duress a little bit. Right? They have a problem, whether it's festering or it's new. They're vulnerable probably, and feeling a lot of stress. And then to go to a resource that talks up to me, that's even worse. I don't even know what to do, let alone, I don't understand what you're saying. So awesome, I was really impressed with how sympathetic and approachable the language was.

Shannon Salter: I'm glad to hear you say that. We often get people commenting that it doesn't look like a typical court or tribunal website, which I take as a compliment.

Jon: It doesn't.

Shannon Salter: Because, as you point out, a lot of court websites, but also forms and information, are designed without any user testing. So a lot of what we've been able to achieve in terms of making it clear is by actually going out and validating with the people who use it whether they understand what's being asked of them, how we can make it better. And then we survey people after they've been through the process to ask them some other questions. And we use that information to improve as well. 

Jon: It's a really important step, and hopefully people who are listening will take that seriously because one of the things ... You applied what sounds like a more Agile approach.

Shannon Salter: We have used Agile, both for the technology development. And the great thing about Agile is that built in there are breaks that you can use to go out and validate your assumptions. So we've developed a pretty stringent methodology for user testing, which we use not just for the technology, but also for our forms, our fee structure, our business processes.

Jon: Yeah. That's so important because you can have the most incredible, insightful solution, or technology, or product based on a relevant human need. Then you can totally botch it with the experience. So for me, the takeaway for people listening is, even when you have a great idea, you have to make sure you're designing it for the people you're using it for.

Shannon Salter: Absolutely. And I think in a public sector context, that can be more challenging.

Jon: It can.

Shannon Salter: I think there can be a perception that it's risky to user test, or that it might be embarrassing. And our view is always that you can either have these small failures along the way and allow yourself to course correct, keep your ego in check, keep the team really focused on user need, or you can have a giant failure at the end. And so we've really adopted that Silicon Valley approach of fail fast, fail often, fail forward. And it's worked out really well for us.

One of the sort of catch phrases we have around the tribunal is that we collect all this feedback through the website and through our front line staff, and we refer to those collections of feedback as treasure troves, which I think really sort of shows that we're not sensitive to criticism. We view it as an exciting opportunity that is valuable. And it's the key to improving.

Jon: Failure is not an option. Yes, it is.

Shannon Salter: Exactly, in a calculated, thoughtful way.

Jon: Let's talk about change management as being one of the driving forces around adoption. Tell me, how did you do it? What did you do? Who was it with? How did you fail and how did you improve?

Shannon Salter: My background is as a lawyer, and then I've also sat as a tribunal member as a decision maker in tribunals, but I had no experience or training in change management. It was one of the things the surprised me when I was appointed, how much change management there was to do because I realized that unless we could bring along stakeholders, that the project was not going to be successful.

But I also had a wide definition of who our stakeholders were, and they weren't just lawyers. It was also, most importantly, the public generally. But also even more importantly than that, community legal advocates who represent vulnerable people in our society. They're the front lines, and they know how badly the legal system can work sometimes for people who have had these barriers.

My view, without any knowledge or expertise in the area, was that the best thing to do was to talk to everybody I could and listen as much as I could. I think there tends to be a bit of a fight or flight response sometimes with projects like this where any institutional or government entity that's trying to introduce a project will either get very defensive and not really listen, or just not engage at all, sort of this flight mechanism. My view was that there was a better way, and the better way was to invite yourself into somebody's living room, metaphorically, for a cup of tea and just talk, and find the common ground where you can.

I started with community advocates and asked them what things they would like to see, given the blank slate that we had. A lot of their feedback was ... they weren't asking for million dollar things. They were asking for absolutely doable things, like can we have staff that are culturally competent? Can we have a direct line to somebody who has authority if their client is falling through the cracks? Things that we've implemented, that were actually not very expensive or difficult to do at all.

I think a lot of it is about being honest and being willing to listen. Being candid, not shying away from difficult questions. But it also takes a lot of time. 

Jon: Once people got on board with it and really understood the impact this could have for citizens, did they stand up and applaud?

Shannon Salter: There was always a lot of supportive members of the public when they became aware of it. We were lucky because the condominium community was very engaged and they are very knowledgeable and well informed. We would have community meetings where 200 or 300 people would show up on a Tuesday night. That was great, a lot of engagement there.

I think with lawyers, even though I have talked about the change resistance and I've been hard on them, I think with them too, when you explain how this is gonna improve access to justice, they did largely get on board. I think that's because lawyers, for the most part, are very committed to access to justice. They are quite idealistic in a lot of ways, but they need to be persuaded.

Jon: That's great. Access is huge. I'm curious about the vulnerable and access.

For people who are less tech savvy, for people who are vulnerable or don't have access to tech, how are you serving them still?

Shannon Salter: Yeah. I spend a lot of my time really focusing my energies on people who would have these issues or may have these issues. The vast majority of people are fine. You put a tablet or a smart phone in front of them, and you make the technology intuitive, and they know what to do, and they're off to the races.

We thought there would be about five or 10% of people who would not use the online technology, based on our research. One thing that surprised us was that now out of almost 6,000 disputes, which by definition have at least one person on each side, we've only had about 10 people ask not to use email, which is the default communication method.

Despite that, you're right, people can engage in a variety of different ways. Most, over 99% of people, use the online technology. But we all have mail based services, telephone, fax, in-person help at 62 service points around the province. I saw you laugh when I mentioned fax. Fax is the real F-word. We don't like faxes, but we do accept them.

Jon: Fax ... I want that on a T-shirt. Fax is an F-

Shannon Salter: Not failure. Failure is not an F-word for us. But fax is.

But nonetheless, we do accept faxes. What surprised us is the massive demand for online services. We get about four paper forms a month, out of about 500 disputes a month. What that's telling me is that people would rather sit down with a friend or family member, fill out a really simple form. They'd rather do that than even go to the post office and line up for a stamp, which is a pretty good validation of well-designed online technology.

Jon: When thinking about change management or resisting adoption, just because we're offering an online service or an online channel, does not negate other channels, it's incremental. I think that's what a lot of people have to get their heads around as well, is that we're not necessarily shutting down other stuff, we're just opening more. We're giving more access.

Shannon Salter: You'd be surprised how often I heard that argument before we opened, that not 100% of people are online, therefore we should offer zero online services. It doesn't make sense logically, or in any other way. I think we do have a responsibility as a part of the public justice system to make sure that nobody is left behind. But you're right, that multi-channel is the solution for that.

Jon: Yeah, difficult is worth doing. That's one of my favorite lines. It might be hard, but the end result is worth it. The Civil Resolution Tribunal is amazing for citizens. The access is incredible. What kind of impact has it had for staff, for people internally?

Shannon Salter: We have an incredible team. I think part of that is we had the blank slate. I was lucky enough to be able to hire my second-in-charge, Richard Rogers, and the key exec team. They in turn hired their own staff and the front line staff. It's really remarkable.

We do a lot of things to make sure our staff feel satisfied in their work. One is that about 80 to 90 percent of our staff work remotely. That has allowed us to recruit some exceptional talent that just needs a bit of flexibility in their life. That's been great.

We're also really engaged with our front line staff. These are the people who engage with the public, either through the submissions that they sent in, or the telephone. Because most of the heavy lifting is done online, they're not sitting there doing data entry. They tend to spend a lot of time on the phone with people who would otherwise slip through the cracks. They're doing higher value work. We also, because we're so new, really rely on them for their front line experience. They're the most valuable source of what's going on for the public and the tribunal.

They have their own agile systems that they've developed, including a success wall. They have a huddle board and a success wall. When they identify a problem, they can escalate it to me and the executive team really, really quickly. The exec team meets every week or two, to review change requests from staff, or through the public, through the website. We triage those changes and implement them in a really short cycle. The front line staff are not living with annoying things for a long period of time.

Jon: I love that. One of the things that I think is really important for people thinking about innovation, especially in public sector, is scale. You talked about condo disputes, you've talked about small claims up to 5,000, you mentioned, we're bringing in automobile disputes. Amazing. Obviously there's some traction, there's some scale. Where do you see this going? How big can it get? Do you see it going from BC across Canada?

Shannon Salter: Yeah. I think one of the interesting things about online dispute resolution and one of the interesting things for us being a leader in this area is that we just don't know what the limits are yet. I think it was very smart for the provincial government to have started with condominium disputes, and then small claims disputes because while these are important issues for the people who have them, they're not life or death issues. Nobody is going to jail or losing their kids because of these kinds of issues. It's a perfect area to carefully, thoughtfully, incrementally experiment and try something new, and figure out what works.

We've gotten pretty good at implementing new areas of jurisdiction and scaling up. Condo disputes are about 500 or 600 a year. Small claims are about 5,000 to 6,000 a year. We know that there will be a multiple of that for motor vehicle disputes as well. I think there's huge potential here for other areas of law too, and the one that comes to mind most readily is family law.

If you think about family law, people going to court spend a huge amount of time and money through a really adversarial process. It's emotionally devastating. The tools that the court system have are pretty limited. Bringing the justice system to families who are going through separation and divorce, allowing them to engage on their time, doing it as collaboratively and consensually as possible, might yield a kinder, gentler, more humane process that's easier on kids, that's easier on the pocket book, and that's easier on the participants through a really difficult time in their lives.

Jon: Amazing. I love the idea of it being more ... humane is not really the word, but more gentle, not only on peoples' emotional state, but financially. Vancouver is one of the leading smart cities in the world. It's amazing that such a fundamental shift in the justice system is happening here. What is it about BC that is driving these innovations?

Shannon Salter: I'd really be speculating here but I think it might have something to do with the fact that we're a relatively young province. There's certainly traditions but they may a little less entrenched then they are in other parts of Canada or maybe even other parts of the world. It certainly does help to have a really strong tech sector and normalizing the idea of innovation.

In the private sector I think naturally bleeds into the public sector, but I do think a lot of this is personality driven. And I see this in other jurisdictions trying to innovate around the world too, that a lot seems to change on just having, or turn on, having the right people in the right places at the right time. So again, I tip my hat again to this innovative group within the ministry of justice which was really before it's time in terms of having some of these ideas. And they just had an incredibly diverse multi-disciplinary group of people who drove this forward. And we sort of picked up the ball and kept it going as well. So it's a very fascinating question, how much is situational? How much is contextual? And I'm not really sure how to apportion that, but I do agree special.

Jon: Someone will write a paper on it eventually.

Shannon Salter: Yes after you have enough data hopefully.

Jon: Right. It's like what is it about, it's something in the water ...

Shannon Salter: Something ... I was going to say that.

Jon: Typically in innovation it's not a one hit wonder. How do you stay ahead of the game and continue to improve? Especially considering your leading position in the industry, you don't want to rest on your laurels. You've made a splash, how do you continue?

Shannon Salter: I think in part the answer for us is a culture of continuous improvement. And that involves sticking our head up every now and again and watching what's happening in the world. And then internally, constantly reevaluating, constantly shifting, constantly adjusting I think does keep us ahead of the game and closely tied to what it is people want and need.

And there's a couple of exciting areas that we're looking at I think moving forward. One is really harnessing the power of all of the data we're able to collect and looking at data analytics to improve our processes. We've already done this in a lot of ways but we're continuing to refine that.

Jon: I love the idea, even just fundamentally about self-serve. It's so intrinsic into how we live our lives now. I go to Amazon, I go to Apple, I do all these things, I go to Craigslist or whatever. I'm actually in the driver's seat as the "consumer." And then I get to government and I hit a wall. Or I used to hit a wall. How do you deliver services to Canadians through digital? They want it, they need it and as government, we need them to need it. 

Shannon Salter: Right.

Jon: Because we spend an inordinate amount of time, resources, money, serving people face to face when it doesn't need to be.

Shannon Salter: And they don't want to do that, and you're right that taxpayers don't want to pay for the government to do that. I think that's right. Nothing about this is particularly surprising to members of the public. When you talk to them they're like, "Yeah, why isn't it that way already?" There's no shock or surprise, there's just a general consensus that it's a good idea and they give it a big thumbs up. So they're not the sticking point there, but the challenge of course is to design technology and processes for them that match their expectations.

So one of the key takeaways from all our user testing was that the more we could make the technology look like things people are already doing online, the easier it was going to be for them to use, the less anxiety it was going to cause them, the more they were likely to jump in with both feet. So you talked about our website, but we know from some of the research we commissioned that 92 percent of people in BC are online every day. The things they're doing are what we're all doing. They're buying stuff, they're Googling stuff, they're using social media, they're emailing and they're texting. And so the negotiation platform looks like a chat room, the solution explorer looks like buying things, it's radio buttons and clicking things. And the forum even looks like buying something from Amazon or WalMart. So I agree with you, it's again a design challenge, but it's not the public that is throwing obstacles in the way for changing the way that the justice system works.

Jon: What advice would you have for people, companies, about V2R and potentially applying for V2R in 2019?

Shannon Salter: Well, my advice to everybody for everything is always to apply for everything. It was a relatively straightforward application process and an incredible group of nominees but I think there's so much talent that goes unrecognized and these incredible projects that don't go, that go unrecognized as well. So I guess my advice would be simple, go for it. 

Jon: So that's it for today's podcast. Thanks so much everybody for listening. Shannon, thank you so much for sharing the story about the tribunal and how you've taken the justice system and brought it to people. I really do think that you've set the bar for other people and I think it's sort of typical, like you said, lawyer justice system, there's a precedent now. And I think if you guys can show that it can be done, there's so many other opportunities for other organizations to take that online which is great. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. I think it's super-inspiring and hopefully people listening got lots out of it. Stay tuned for more upcoming episodes in our “Innovation Series” featuring other V2R winners. That’s it for now so see you next time.

Shannon Salter: Thanks very much, John.

Jon: Thanks for listening to this episode of Shift. You can get more details at If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, subscribe to our podcast series. You can find us on iTunes, Google Play or your preferred podcast platform. Just so you know, this podcast has been prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP, an Ontario Limited liability partnership for general guidance on matters of interest only and does not constitute professional advice. Until next time.

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