Proposed online court would solve commercial disputes without lawyers
Removing England and Wales’ document-hungry civil courts from the ‘stranglehold of paper’ is the aim of a reform proposal announced by England and Wales’ top judges.
Civil courts - the County Court, the High Court and the Court of Appeal - resolve civil cases ranging from small claims to major corporate lawsuits. Even by the standards of England and Wales’ justice system, they rely heavily on paper: clerks pushing trolleys of document boxes between lawyers’ chambers and courtrooms are a familiar sight in legal London.
However after years of dithering, there are signs that modernisation is now being rushed through. In a report published this week, the judge charged with leading the reform programme admitted that shortage of time has “curtailed both the extent and depth of consultation”.
Nonetheless, the Civil Courts Structure Review, by Lord Justice Briggs, proposes fundamental changes to break what he calls the “stranglehold of paper”. These include the creation of an online “self-service” court, which would be the first court ever to be designed in England and Wales for use by litigants without lawyers.
“It would be tempting to capture this essential distinguishing feature by calling it a people’s court, were it not for the unfortunate historical connotations which would inevitably attach to that phrase,” he said. He was apparently referring to the Nazi “people’s courts” which sentenced opponents of the regime to death.
The civil courts reform is part of an initiative to computerise the whole of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, including criminal courts and employment tribunals. In another report this week, England’s most senior judge said that outdated IT systems "severely impede the delivery of justice".
For example, IT for the judiciary is currently based on an operating system “so outdated that support is no longer available”, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said in the Lord Chief Justice's Annual Report 2015.
However, he reveals that “agreement was finally reached during 2015, after many years of discussions, under which HMCTS will upgrade the judiciary to a modern system known as ‘e-judiciary’ which provides modern software and cloud-based secured storage”.
Among the pilot users of e-judiciary is Lord Briggs. But the scale of the challenge of computerising the senior judiciary can be gauged by the tone of his civil justice report.
He reveals proudly that: “I have disciplined myself to conduct the whole of this review online, in the sense that I have neither received nor generated a single piece of paper from start to finish, save only to make paper copies of electronic documents available to those consultees attending meetings without laptop computers.”
Confessing to being a two-fingered typist, he says: “To those consultees who have had to type, scan and email what they would rather have written and posted I can only apologise, but I am entirely unrepentant. Conducting this review in a paperless environment has been both an education, and a liberation, in itself.”