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Lawyers liking firm's electronic filing system

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The initiation of the Puratone Corporation's creditor-protection proceedings in September had all of the urgency -- and massive volume of filings -- of any case with creditors owed millions of dollars from a company that could not keep up to changing market conditions.

But this case was that much more pressing because the hog-production company's assets were live animals.

So it was fortunate the Puratone Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) filing was the first ever done in the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench using electronic filing.

It's hard to determine the precise value the electronic filing had in what became a fairly expeditious sale of the assets to Maple Leaf Foods, but it seems clear as a pilot project it has been a success.

Launched as a partnership between the Queen's Bench court registry and the Legal Data Resources Corp. (LDRC), a not-for-profit entity created in the late 1980s by the Law Society of Manitoba, the electronic-filing experiment successfully introduced key players in the provincial court system to a brave new world of secure electronic filing.

"We're just getting our feet wet," said Kelly Wilson, the Court of Queen's Bench registrar.

But as far as experimental dabbling with technology goes, this was quite substantial.

There have been more than 82 separate documents filed, totalling more then 3,200 pages of material. But this time they were all digital.

For the lawyers involved in CCAA actions, it can be an arduous undertaking just distributing all the documents to the various parties.

David Jackson, of the Winnipeg law firm Taylor McCaffrey LLP, represented the secured creditors in the matter, which is still before the court.

"In many of these CCAA applications, everybody shows up (at court) with boxes and boxes of documents," he said. "I tell you, it was awfully nice to be able to walk up with a laptop which contained all the material."

Don Douglas, of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP, the firm representing Deloitte, the court-appointed receiver, said, "I found one of the great advantages of it was that once you filed a document and got back the electronic copy from the courthouse, you could just press the email send button and the hundred or so people on the service list could all receive it electronically."

So rather than lawyers having to worry about needing X number of days to serve all the interested parties, they are allowed more time for the preparation of the documents.

Wilson and the lawyers involved in the matter all seem to be giving the process a thumbs-up. Wilson said the fact the presiding judge in the case, Justice Robert A. Dewar, is computer-savvy was essential for the pilot project to run smoothly.

And by all accounts, it has. But just as the wheels of justice turn slowly, so, too, does the administration of the court system.

Manitoba Attorney General Andrew Swan introduced legislation last fall to allow for more electronic filing in provincial criminal courts. He is encouraged by the progress being made in civil matters at Queen's Bench, but there are no specific marching orders as to how it will be rolled out more broadly.

"The time has long since gone when clients expect their lawyer to be standing in line at the registry," Swan said in an interview. "The court needs to move ahead and allow lawyers to safely and securely file documents from their office. That only makes sense."

Swan is also happy the LDRC and the court registry have been able to successfully manage the experiment.

In fact, if it weren't for the LDRC, it probably wouldn't have happened.

The process of initiating the pilot project was championed by LDRC chairman Ron Coke, a lawyer with Taylor McCaffrey.

As well, it was the LDRC that invested a significant amount of money to acquire the software licence to allow the court registry and as many as 1,000 Manitoba lawyers to acquire secure digital signatures.

The digital signature system -- which can also allow encrypted files to be sent through a firm's normal email system -- is essential for the security of the information and the integrity of the court system.

"When I or a deputy receive an email from counsel, counsel can have it encrypted," Wilson said. "We open and see it is encrypted by a specific counsel. We know it is coming from a secure party. Ensuring that the integrity of the court record is maintained, that's what's most important to my office."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2013 B3

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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