Judiciary looks to Canada and Netherlands for working examples of justice
The great majority of everyday legal disputes - over matters such as unpaid bills and faulty goods - could be resolved online rather than in a physical court in the latest move to modernise England and Wales’ justice system.
The proposed online court is a central part of a plan to reform civil (as opposed to criminal) justice drawn up by Lord Justice Briggs, deputy head of civil justice at the Court of Appeal.
Briggs says that an online court "with its own set of user-friendly rules" should become the compulsory forum for resolving claims for fixed sums of money up to £25,000.
In practice, such cases are normally undefended and normally conclude with a court order to pay. However, as Briggs concedes in his report, the idea that justice can be reduced to an online administrative procedure remains controversial.
The report points to two overseas precedents:
- The Netherlands’ Rechtswijzer online dispute resolution system. This is currently available for resolving family disputes and is shortly to be extended to landlord and tenant matters.
- British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal, which will go fully online next year.
Incompetence and underfunding
Briggs notes that critics will say the court “will be blighted by government incompetence in IT, or by underfunding during both design and operation”.
However, he says that overseas experience suggests there are no “inherently insuperable IT technical challenges”. Indeed the project “is not solely, or even mainly, an IT challenge. It is primarily an exercise in knowledge engineering. It depends first upon a detailed and accurate understanding of the underlying law relating to each case type within the court’s jurisdiction”.
Digital exclusion, however, remains an issue. “The solution lies in my view in the most intense search for, funding, development and testing of services to assist the computer-challenged.” He recommends “designing all the IT for use on smartphones and tablets rather than just on desktops and laptops”.
Transparent and open
One cultural objection is “loss of the traditional day in court”. Briggs says this will be more keenly felt by one-off litigants rather than professional legal teams, but suggests that for more complex claims a video hearing "will offer much of the essence of the day in court, particularly as court video technology improves from its currently rather clunky state".
He also urges the need for transparent and open justice to be kept under constant review as a priority.
The Government has yet to respond formally to Briggs’ plan, but ministers are understood to have ordered that work begin on the necessary legislation to make it happen.