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Cyber judges could settle disputes online



A new e-Bay style court could take over the vast majority of civil claims, an official report says today

Small commercial disputes should be settled online in a new electronic court, the government's adviser on court procedures recommends in a report published today. The Civil Justice Council says in its Online Dispute Resolution report that "automated negotiation" could take over the role of some judges in civil courts.

It recommends that HM Courts & Tribunals Service, part of the Ministry of Justice, should establish a new, internet-based court service, known as HM Online Court, to handle small claims. Today these account for almost 70% of hearings in county courts in England and Wales. Putting the process online would cut costs and improve access to justice, according to the report's author, Professor Richard Susskind.

He proposes that HM Online Court offers a three-tier service:

  • Tier 1 should provide "online evaluation", helping users to be aware of their rights and obligations and what options and remedies are available.
  • Tier 2 would provide "online facilitation". Individual facilitators communicating online would help parties through mediation and negotiation. Some automated negotiation would help parties resolve their differences without human intervention.
  • Tier 3 should provide online judges who would decide suitable cases online, "largely on the basis of papers submitted to them electronically as part of a structured process of online pleading." The process would be supported, where necessary, by phone conferences.

The process would be similar to that run by auction site eBay which settles around 60m disagreements between traders each year. These are resolved either through online negotiation between the parties or a binding decision by a member of eBay staff.

Initially, HM Online Court would be restricted to civil claims for less than £25,000: for example, disputes over commercial debts. However, the report says its jurisdiction could be extended to "suitable family disputes". Family courts have been overburdened with parties handling their own cases since the abolition of legal aid for most family matters last year.

Susskind said: "This report is not suggesting improvements to the existing system. It is calling for a radical and fundamental change in the way that our court system deals with low value civil claims."

To implement the proposals the report recommends that HM Courts & Tribunals Services introduces an online scheme scheme into the current courts reform programme "and allocates a modest fraction of its £75m annual reform budget" to establish the online court. It calls for all political parties to offer "in principle support" for the online court as a way of increasing access to justice and reducing the cost of civil disputes.

The measure seems to have support at the highest levels of the judiciary. In the report's foreword, Lord Dyson, chairman of the Civil Justice Council and Master of the Rolls, says: "There is no doubt that online dispute resolution is an area with enormous potential for meeting the needs of the system and its users in the 21st century." He points out that "the courts have some catching up to do with other areas of business and government."

Pictured: scales of justice by Paul Clarke © |

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