Online Courts – Judicial Revolution or Digital Distraction?
11th February, 2016
With the publication of Lord Justice Briggs’ interim report on civil court structures and judicial processes, a lot of attention has been focused on his recommendations regarding the so-called Online Court.
But is the Lord Chief Justice’s vision of courts freed “from the constraints of storing, transmitting and communication information on paper” by digitising legal processes really achievable?
The report, part of the Civil Courts Structure Review, describes the Online Court as: “the first court ever to be designed in this country, from start to finish, for use by litigants without lawyers. It is unique among attempts to assist litigants without lawyers because it seeks for the first time in this country to take advantage of the facilities offered by modern IT at all stages in its process.”
The recommendations set out three stages to the Online Court process:
1. An interactive online process for identifying the issues and providing documentary evidence
2. Conciliation and case management by case officers
3. Resolution by judges.
The court will use documents on screen, telephone, video conferencing or face-to-face meetings.
Lord Justice Briggs’ report, published ahead of a formal consultation on the Civil Courts Structure Review that’s due to be completed by May 2016, is both interesting and thought provoking for lawyers and would-be litigants.
Its recommendations cover financial disputes and damages claims. There is no doubt that as a means of resolving straightforward, low value disputes, these proposals will go some way to easing pressure on court time and facilitating access to justice in cases where using lawyers would be disproportionately expensive.
But an Online Court would not be appropriate for higher value court cases – involving claims in excess of £25,000. Most of the disputes we deal with are for more than £25,000 and often involve business critical issues. Divorce and child custody cases are also excluded from the suggested reforms.
In addition, many law firms, our own included, already offer a low price, fixed cost debt collection service, for example, which frequently leads to settlement without court proceedings. The simple yet effective initial solicitor’s letter is very often all that’s required to persuade a debtor to pay..
Responses to the report are invited throughout the consultation stage, with written feedback required by the end of February. The report is being processed quickly, with final proposals due by the end of the summer.
I would be very interested in your thoughts on these proposals. Would online courts truly revolutionise the manner in which the judicial system operates? Or is it a distraction that promises much in theory, but would deliver little benefit in practice? The development of the IT systems needed to support the proposals is not something which will happen overnight.