The arrival of the online court – a brave new world?

Amy Ooi is a GDL student at BPP, Waterloo campus. She is the new Justice Reform Analyst for the Pro Bono Centre, specifically reporting on the new online court. Amy completed a degree in English and German and has an interest in human rights and civil liberties groups. She is also interested in current reforms to our justice system and, in particular, how technology and the law get can work together. 

Over the coming months Amy will report on how the proposed online court is taking shape. She will be taking a look at similar systems already in place and thinking about how they could be put to work in the English legal landscape. There’ll be posts on how the online dispute resolution process could learn from existing commercial technologies, and what the move from the physical courtroom into a virtual space might mean for access to justice in the context of an increasingly digital society.

 Amy is a volunteer with the BPP Pro Bono Centre. The Pro Bono Centre facilitates around 30 projects engaging law students to deliver legal education and advice projects to improve access to justice. To find our more, email probono@bpp.com.

The idea

The online court is a new idea for modernising the civil justice system. The plan is to set up an online dispute resolution process (ODR) with the aim of making it easier, cheaper, and quicker to process low value civil claims. The exact process for a claim is not yet entirely set in stone, but it seems likely to comprise of three stages: 1) a form of online triage, 2) a conciliation stage, handled by a Case Officer, and 3) the final stage, where cases which cannot be settled are determined by a judge, either remotely, or face-to-face.

When is the online court?

OC is being developed as part of the five-year courts and tribunal system Reform Programme launched in 2015. Some commentators are sceptical about the possibility of there being an online court in place by 2020 although it seems that proponents are keen to push through a piecemeal introduction, if nothing else. The general indication is that we will see the service up and running purely on the basis of the third stage, giving a little more time to develop the first two aspects of OC. I will keep you up to date with any developments on this front.

Why?

The Reform Programme reflects a broader desire that HMCTS not be left behind as technology in the private sector races ahead.  However, the introduction of OC for civil claims up to £25,000 is also a response to the way in which Legal Aid cuts have made civil justice less available for the majority of ordinary citizens and small businesses. It is hoped that the new system will increase access to justice.

Are there obstacles?

The OC plan is a big shake-up and there are many pitfalls to avoid. There are concerns surrounding exclusion of those who choose not to or do not have access to IT services (around 18%, according to government figures), as well as surrounding procurement and implementation of the digital systems themselves. Many legal professionals fear that OC will signal the beginning of litigation without lawyers.

Why does it matter?

OC has wide-ranging implications, and speaks to issues outside of those directly relevant to HMCTS reform. It will be interesting, for example, to see if the OC will be accepted as part of the advancing self-service trend in our society, or whether it will in fact render our civil claims system more faceless and obscure. In borrowing systems from the commercial world (eBay and Tripadvisor) the OC could also change whether we identify more as citizens or as consumers of a service. The idea that the ODR system will ultimately run itself to a certain degree also raises an interesting point which will inform and be informed by our shifting conceptions about what matters require a human eye, and what we can leave to the computers to decide.

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