Digital transformation critical to alleviating rising delays in UK courts system
By Law News
Businesses waiting on average a record 18 months for cases to be heard in Civil Courts, 27% longer than in 2019
His Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) set to roll out new video hearings service in 2024
Better integration of technology will be crucial in easing mounting delays in the UK courts system, with businesses now waiting an average of 18 months for disputes to be heard in the Civil Courts, 6.3 weeks longer than the average 17 months to be heard in January to March 2022. Waiting times are now 27%, or 21.4 weeks longer than during the pre-Covid era in 2019, when the average wait time was 13 months. As a result of delays, UK businesses are facing prolonged legal uncertainty which has a knock-on impact on their ability to operate, says Thomson Reuters.
His Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has embarked on a £1.3 billion programme to modernise and digitise court services in England and Wales. This has included automation of case management, the widespread use of video conferencing, and new facilities for parties to file applications online and upload documents. HMCTS is also introducing a new video hearings service in 2024 with virtual consultation rooms and built-in guidance for users. This further builds upon Cloud Video Platform, introduced in 2020, which has been rolled out across civil, family, tribunal, magistrate and Crown hearings, and is accessible by any internet-enabled device with a camera and a microphone4.
Kriti Sharma, Chief Product Officer for Legal Technology, at Thomson Reuters says “Technology such as new, enhanced video hearing systems and AI driven tools for digital evidence management are critical in ensuring further reductions in court backlogs and timely access to justice. With the right safeguards in place, they can have an important societal impact, as court users are less likely to be impacted by delays, and time spent on in-person hearings. This gives both businesses and individuals their day in court more quickly and conveniently, which is particularly beneficial when taking time out to attend hearings can be expensive and often unattainable, often disproportionately impacting disadvantaged communities.”
A Law Society report found that remote hearings are perceived as working well when used in: simple procedural hearings; more complex cases, such as those involving commercial courts; as well as more technical or administrative proceedings. However, the technology is still evolving and needs continued investment to ensure it is used in a way which protects vulnerable groups and truly delivers more equality in access to justice.
AI has been regarded by legal commentators as another potential solution to improving access to justice. The Head of the Judiciary in England and Wales has suggested that parties to potential litigation could use AI to scour case precedents to determine the likelihood of success before committing to legal action. The Master of the Rolls has also predicted that AI-powered machines may in the future be used to make legal decisions, albeit with the option for an appeal to a human judge.
Online mediation could also play a role in helping to clear backlogs in the courts. Mediation services provider, IPOS Mediation announced a partnership with software developer, Resolve Disputes Online, to enable SMEs to quickly resolve disputes online using a platform set to be launched in 2024.
Kriti Sharma added, “At Thomson Reuters we work with the justice sector to provide tools which help judges and lawyers make decisions confidently and quickly. Over the past five years our tools have helped digitise the Crown Courts, helping to pave the way for the further adoption of next-level technology into the justice system”.
The Thomson Reuters State of the Courts Report 2023, which contains insights from over 200 US judges and court professionals shows that the US courts system shares many of the same challenges of rising delays experienced in the UK. 44% of respondents said that backlogs had increased over the past 24 months, and 45% said the same about court case loads.
Additional findings from the State of the Courts Report include:
- Virtual hearings are here to stay, with over 80% of courts now conducting hearings through virtual platforms.
- 40% of respondents say the majority of court hearings are now conducted virtually. 74% say virtual hearings will stay the same or increase in the future.
- More than three-quarters of respondents (76%) say that virtual court opportunities increase access to justice for litigants, significantly up from 55% in 2021.
- However, almost 75% of courts do not use digital evidence management systems, despite this technology having potentially enormous efficiency benefits for hearings and trials. Two thirds of those who do not have such a system in place, believe their court would benefit from it.