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The court of the future is online

Online dispute resolution systems, such as eBay, cited as a way of bringing the court system into the 21st century, reports Catherine Baksi

16 February 2015

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Judges sitting in their homes could resolve claims online by 2017 under radical plans to increase access to justice and cut court costs, a high-profile working group including the master of the rolls has proposed.

The report by a working group of the independent Civil Justice Council (CJC) calls for HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to set up a state-run Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). Known as HM Online Court (HMOC), the internet-based court service, would initially be used for civil claims under the value of £25,000, but the report says it could be extended to suitable family disputes and cases than come before tribunals.

It recommends a three-tier process for resolving problems. Tier One would provide Online Evaluation with the aim of avoiding disputes. It would provide interactive aids and information services to help users classify and categorise their grievance, know their rights and obligations and understand the options and remedies available to them.

Tier Two provides Online Facilitation to bring a dispute to a speedy and fair conclusion without the involvement of judges. Trained facilitators will communicate with the user over the internet, reviewing papers and statements and helping the parties through mediation and negotiation, with the support of telephone conferencing where necessary.

Tier Three provides online judges - full and part-time members of the judiciary - sitting in their homes rather than court, who will decide cases or parts of cases online, largely on the basis of papers submitted to them electronically as part of a structures process of online pleading.

The report calls on HMCTS to set to pilot the scheme this year and suggests that the system could be fully rolled out in 2017. The set up, it suggests, would be a 'modest fraction' of its £75m reform budget and ultimately be funded through fees paid by users.

The report acknowledges that the idea may seem 'alien and even disruptive' but at a time when an affordable court service and access to justice is 'under severe threat' it asks lawyers and judges to 'keep an open mind' and 'embrace a new mind-set'.

Though 'radical' the report says the reforms are not 'science-fiction' and cites a number of established online dispute resolution methods, including that used by eBay, which resolves around 60m disagreements among traders each year.

The report's principal author, professor Richard Susskind, said: 'For resolving low value claim, we are concerned that our current system is too costly, too slow and too complex, especially for litigants in person.'

'This report is not suggesting improvements to the current system. It is calling for a radical and fundamental change in the way that our court system deals with low value civil claims,' said Susskind.

HMOC, he said, will increase access to justice, providing an affordable and accessible user-friendly service and make 'substantial' savings in the cost of the court system.

Backing the proposal, the master of the rolls and CJC chair, Lord Dyson, hoped the report would act as a 'catalyst for far-reaching reforms'.

He said ODR has 'enormous potential for meeting the needs of the system and its users in the 21st century'.

Dyson said the proposal is 'in harmony' with the internet generation who are used to dealing with matters online and accepted that 'the courts have some catching up to do with other areas of business and government'.

An HMCTS spokesperson said: 'We welcome the publication of this important and thought-provoking report. We agree that On-line Dispute Resolution is an important area and one that we are actively exploring in more detail in the context of the reform of court and tribunal services.

'We are keen to continue to engage with the ODR Advisory Group on their report and any future work that the Civil Justice Council may commission them to do.' 

The full report can be read at here.

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