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Bar fears online court will lead to a two-tier justice system

Barristers cautious over Briggs LJ's plans as litigators call for 'confidence' in reforms

27 July 2016

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Lord Justice Briggs's latest call for a new online court for civil claims has received a mixed reception from the legal profession as lawyers mull over implications of his revolutionary plans.

The judge's final report into the structure of the civil courts was published today with wide-ranging reforms put forward aimed at modernising the HM Courts and Tribunal Service.

The stand-out proposal is a new online court with its own set of user-friendly rules and which requires 'minimal assistance' from lawyers.

Under the plans, the court will only deal with straightforward money claims valued up to £25,000. However, it is envisaged that it will become the compulsory forum for resolving cases.

The idea was born in Briggs LJ's interim report of the civil court structure published in January and will now leave lawyers with the challenge of unbundling their services to provide advice under the new system at a 'fixed recoverable cost'.

When Briggs LJ first floated his reform agenda, the Bar Council argued that the removal of lawyers from certain areas of law could lead to 'a denial of justice'.

Upon release of the full report, the profession's representative body has once again urged caution and expressed concern that a 'two-tier justice' system could be an unintended and undesirable consequence of the reforms.

Chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said: 'Any moves towards an online court for claims of up to £25,000 must avoid the risk of entrenching a system of two-tier justice whereby individuals opting to use a "lawyerless" online court process could easily find themselves in litigation with big organisations which can afford to hire their own legal teams.'

However, David Greene, committee member and former president of the London Solicitors Litigation Association (LSLA), welcomed the 'revolutionary' report and urged the legal community to have faith in the plans.

'It is vital that we all have confidence in the online court, its functioning, and development. The marriage between IT and the court process has not always been a happy one and so the recognition by Briggs of piloting with smaller claims is all important.

'The court he proposes is a whole new ball game with new separate rules and an inquisitorial process. While the work our members do is at a different level it remains important to all of us that the justice process at all levels is accessible and effective. Briggs seeks to deliver that and the LSLA welcomes this revolutionary initiative.'

In his report, the Appeal Court judge stressed that 'it is for others to decide which of the… recommendations should be implemented, and by what means,' but believes his plans will ensure access to the civil justice service for the 'silent community' in England and Wales.

Elsewhere in the report, the county court was suggested as the default court to enforce judgments and orders of all the civil courts of which all procedures would be digitised, centralised, and rationalised.

Efficiency was a key theme in the Briggs report as proposals for a senior body of court lawyers and other officials who can assist with paperwork and uncontentious matters were submitted.

Briggs LJ also suggested that no case should be too big to be resolved in the regions and said that the acute shortage of circuit judges specialising in civil work required urgent remedy.

A court to re-establish an out-of-hours private mediation service in county court hearing centres, along the lines of the National Mediation Helpline, was also suggested.

The report was praised by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the outgoing Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson.

'While a number of the reforms being recommended are already an integral part of the HMCTS reform programme, such as the online court, the report has benefitted from wide consultation which will help to improve the design and planning of those reforms,' said Lord Thomas.

'Completion of a review of this magnitude within twelve months is a considerable achievement, and I congratulate Michael Briggs on its depth and clarity of thought.'

Lord Dyson added: 'The civil justice system is facing a number of challenges and pressures, of which Lord Justice Briggs has provided a masterly analysis. He has given us ample food for thought on how the system can be modernised and made more efficient.

'I commend the care with which he has sought views, and the insightful thinking which he has applied to his review. It will fall to my successor and others to consider his recommendations, but the system owes him a considerable debt.'

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