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Top judges support digital court processes to improve access to justice

Lord Briggs reviews civil court structure at a time of 'unprecedented change'

12 January 2016

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An online court (OC) for litigants in person is now a 'practicable proposition' and could resolve straightforward claims up to £25,000.

In his interim report of the civil courts structure, Lord Justice Briggs said the concept of the OC was 'wholly dependent on the introduction and imaginative use of IT' and 'behavioural and cultural change'.

With momentum growing for an online dispute resolution (ODR) service, a system to increase access to justice while avoiding the disproportionate costs of using lawyers could revolutionise the civil justice system.

The OC proposed by Lord Briggs will work in three stages. First, an automated and interactive process will identify any issues; second, conciliation and case management by case officers; and third, resolution by judges.

To assist users, an 'assisted digital' provision would include online assistance, telephone helplines, and face-to-face human help.

While Lord Brigg remains confident about the OC's introduction, he wants several questions to be answered such as what types of claim should be included, or excluded from its purview.

Concerns also remain over how much and what types of IT assistance will be needed and how much of one side's costs should be paid to the other.

Elsewhere in the report, Briggs said there were functions currently undertaken by judges that could be transferred to trained case officers, including routine case management of less complex cases.

The Lord Justice of Appeal wants a stronger concentration of civil expertise among circuit and district judges. Where civil work has a regional connection, the case must be managed and tried in the regions, subject to limited exceptions requiring specialist expertise, such as patents.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said the report was a timely contribution to the debate on the structure of the civil courts at a time of 'unprecedented change'.

'We are facing considerable challenges but there are also many opportunities, above all with the prospect of digitising court processes,' he added.

'The time is ripe for reform, and it is in any event essential and unavoidable. This review will make a considerable contribution to that process and to the future shape of the civil courts.'

Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson echoed the Lord Chief Justice's praise for the report, adding that an OC would improve access to justice and provide litigants in person with a system designed specifically for them.

'We are now entering an important phase in the review, and all those with a view on these issues and the future shape of the civil courts will have an opportunity to offer their thoughts and suggestions. I urge people to do so, to make their voice heard in the reform process,' he said.

The consultation process is to be completed by the summer with written responses invited by the end of February 2016.

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