Modernisation, social mobility and civil justice
By Tony Guise
Tony Guise outlines comments made by Sir Geoffrey Vos at his first appearance before the Justice Select Committee in June.
Four years after the last appearance of a Master of the Rolls before the Justice Select Committee of the House of Commons, the modernisation programme remains unfinished – although only nine months from completion, we are assured. So it was that on 6 June, 2023 Sir Geoffrey Vos made his first appearance before the Justice Committee as Master of the Rolls.
I was privileged to attend that Justice Committee meeting and had, well, a second-row seat to hear the action first hand. Here I try to summarise the Master of the Rolls’ (MR’s) remarks to the committee about the deep structural changes planned for the civil justice system of England and Wales.
The MR’s three priorities were three Ds: Digitisation, Data and Diversity.
Beset by delays and poor morale amongst the district judiciary, the partly completed modernisation programme was, the MR explained, at last beginning to deliver.
Modernisation has improved processing times – from issuing, to proceedings, to directions orders: three times as fast as the paper system, in fact, with hundreds of thousands of people using Online Civil Money Claims and the Damages Claims Portal. Both are going well, he said, but there remains much to do in terms of completing the end-to-end process.
Completing modernisation in 2024 would help enormously, Vos said, as the future does not lie in trolley-loads of paper files that are frequently lost. However, not everything will be digitised. The MR mentioned insolvency and tribunals, both victims of the failure by His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service to modernise more quickly.
Both the MR and the Lord Chief Justice are working hard to address the valid concerns of the district bench. By introducing online management of the pre-action phase and integrating (alternative) dispute resolution, the number of cases being issued will fall, thus relieving the chronic burden of cases on the district bench and leaving judges with the time to deal with more pressing cases.
The MR emphasised that digitisation of pre-action is groundbreaking and has not been done anywhere else in the world. Tahir Ali, MP asked what the role of the Online Procedure Rules Committee (OPRC) would be in the reformed system. The MR said this was the most interesting question of the modern day. The OPRC would regulate and govern the pre-action phase by delivering rules that were principles (eg ‘do not deliver an outcome without hearing both sides’) – with detailed requirements left to the computer program. This echoes the approach of Supreme Court Justice Sir Michael Briggs (as he then was), which he described as “do what the computer says”. The OPRC would establish processes to address data and technical governance.
The first tier of the pre-action phase would comprise a landing page in which the user is led, through a series of intuitive steps, to legal advice available in different formats – but ultimately for real people, by real lawyers – to enable them to understand their rights and how to proceed to resolve their differences. The next tier would be (alternative) dispute resolution, such as mediation or neutral evaluation.
Shortly after the MR’s appearance before the Justice Select Committee, the membership of the OPRC was announced, thus firing the starting gun on the introduction of these long-awaited reforms.
The MR explained that with digitisation comes the opportunity to harvest data to inform the future reform of the civil justice system. This is the exciting prospect of enabling enduring change that the digitisation of the system from pre-action to enforcement affords.
I consider Sir Geoffrey’s evidence about the issue of diversity and inclusion amongst the most powerful we have yet heard from a member of the senior judiciary. In remarks that have, remarkably, passed unreported until now, the MR explained that social mobility and diversity are amongst his top three priorities because the key to a successful judiciary and a successful society are “unity, empowerment and respect for others”.
The reforms present fantastic opportunities for citizens, lawyers and legal tech.
The session is available online via Parliament TV.
Tony Guise is the director of DisputesEfiling.com.