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Digital exclusion no longer an issue, says courts’ IT adviser


Michael Cross Correspondent

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Digital exclusion is no longer a barrier to online justice, a leading figure in the programme to set up online courts has said.

Professor Richard Susskind, IT adviser to the lord chief justice, has told a conference on modernising courts that “internet usage is far higher than lawyers, advice workers and judges assume”, and that when proxy users are taken into account, fewer than 3% of people are unable to make claims online.

“We can’t let the tail wag the dog,” he said.

Susskind was rebutting what he described as six principal criticisms to the online civil court, part of HM Courts and Tribunals Service's £1 billion modernisation programme. He told the Court Excellence and Innovation conference in Dubai that the future of civil justice lies in “asynchronous” courts in which judges rule on evidence supplied digitally.

“Online is not an alternative to the courts system, it is the courts system” he said. “Within 10 years most cases will be resolved by online courts.”

Response to pushbacks

Tackling six “pushbacks” against the Ministry of Justice's online court programme, Susskind said accusations of creating cut-price justice were misplaced. In contrast to today's “Rolls-Royce system that few are using”, the self-service online court would open up a latent market among claimants who today see justice as too slow, costly and antiquated.

He was upbeat over fears about risks to open justice, saying that work is underway to ensure access to proceedings. “We should be able to make the system more transparent that what we have now,” he said.

Conceding that many people feel strongly that the justice process should work face-to-face, Susskind said he could find “no principles of justice, jurisprudence or legal philosophy” to justify that position.

On the belief that justice should be dispensed in a physical setting, he said: “We’ve got to test that claim. Maybe (online) isn’t quite as good, but it's available. I’m seeking improvement, not perfection.”

Susskind also questioned claims that online dispute resolution would damage the majesty of the courts.

“I worry a bit about that word (majesty). Today we have majestic but rarely used physical courts competing with private sector dispute resolution systems.”

However, he made one concession to critics, saying the proposed £25,000 claims value limit for the online court might be too high at first. “I think we should start low. We have to be nuanced,” he said.

More video pilots

In the latest step in the courts modernisation programme, HMCTS has revealed that a pilot of video hearings in tax tribunals could be extended to claims in the County Court. From the end of this month, applications to set aside court judgments will be heard remotely via video link at the Manchester and Birmingham civil justice centres. 

Subject to their consent, parties (or their representatives) will attend the hearing “via suitable IT equipment and will see and hear, and be seen and heard by, each other and the judge determining the application”. 

The year-long pilot follows the successful hearing of eight cases by video in the First-tier Tax Tribunal.

Image by Captain Roger Fenton, public domain through flickr

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