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Legal bigwigs line up behind online courts


Michael Cross Correspondent

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Leaders of the justice system of England and Wales have joined forces to enthuse about moving large parts of the courts process away from paper based to virtual digital hearings.

The justice secretary, head of the judiciary and chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) were opening an international conference in London on online courts. They were speaking as the £1.2 billion programme to transform courts reported early successes in moving processes online - but also as questions were raised about the management of the six-year programme. 

A central theme of the event - attended by delegates from 20 countries - was that going online could humanise justice systems that are creaking under the weight of paper and outdated and impenetrable processes. Professor Richard Susskind, IT adviser to a succession of lord chief justices, pointed out that the proportion of the world’s population with access to the internet - which has just passed 50% - now exceeds the figure of 43% reckoned by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to have access to justice.

Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor David Gauke - a former solicitor - spoke of online justice as a way to help ordinary citizens into a system which all too often looks like “a secret garden designed by experts”. 

But the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, stole the headlines by suggesting that courts could learn from online dispute resolution facilities offered by businesses such as eBay. This could even extend to a smartphone court.

“Why not?” he said “There is no reason why our forms, processes, and perhaps even some hearings should not be optimised for smartphones giving litigants effective access to justice from the palm of their hand.

“That facility is being developed in England and Wales. There is no reason why our online courts and justice systems cannot deliver effective and accessible justice direct to the citizen.”

Changing behaviour

HMCTS, which organised the event in partnership with the Society for Computers and Law (of which Richard Susskind is president), offered some indications that moving routine processes online can change behaviour for the better as well as generate efficiencies. 

Its change director Richard Goodman revealed that online channels account for 20% of applications for probate and that half of people contacted for jury service now communicate with the system online. 

Online divorce forms, made available this year, have prompted a dramatic improvement in accuracy: in the past, half of all forms had to be returned at least once, but the error rate on digital forms is 0.4% and the satisfaction ratings have been high.

Even in criminal justice, where people charged with certain summary offences such as rail fare evasion are now offered the chance to plead guilty online, 76% of users are satisfied, Goodman said. Like other online processes, it has the effect of “actively encouraging people to engage”.

A similar effect is seen in the new system for settling money claims online, where the user satisfaction rate is 90%. 

These success stories, however, are mainly pilots or beta tests with self-selecting users. “We're not turning off paper for those who want paper,” Goodman stressed.

Warning sign

Whether they can be scaled up across the courts service and into more complex processes remains to be seen. A warning sign appeared last month when, in a paper for the committee drawing up rules for the online county court, senior judge Mr Justice Birss cautioned against the agile project methodology which is the main hope of avoiding previous courts IT fiascos.

“The project is being delivered under the agile technology, which works well for video games but less so for delivering court processes,” he said. 

Image from iStock, Anthony Baggett

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