Online courts ‘won’t remove need for specialist legal advice’

Topics: Civil justice,Law Society activity,Alternative dispute resolution

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The senior judge overseeing a revamp of civil justice has been warned online courts cannot fix all the challenges facing the system.

Responding to the root-and-branch review of the courts structure by Lord Justice Briggs, the Law Society stressed any new ideas must be thoroughly tested before coming into everyday use.


Society president Jonathan Smithers said experience has shown that making any major changes to one part of the justice system may have unintended consequences.

The government and senior judiciary have backed online dispute resolution as a way of removing lawyers from some parts of the system and reducing costs.

Smithers said: ‘If it works as intended, an online court may be able to reduce the need for specialist legal advice, but it will not remove that need altogether. It must not be used as a way of normalising a two-tier justice system where those who cannot afford professional legal advice find themselves at a disadvantage against an opponent who is wealthier and/or more knowledgeable about the system.’

Smithers explained the Society supports an online court for ‘straightforward money’ disputes worth up to £10,000, but is opposed to the recommendation to extend jurisdiction to claims up to £25,000.

‘Many cases will be too complex for users to lodge a claim on an online court,’ he added.

‘Those with substantial claims may feel uncomfortable using an online platform and let’s not forget that almost a quarter of the population still has no online access.

‘Wales has the lowest level of internet access in the UK and progress on the rollout of fast and super-fast broadband indicates that there is some way to go.’

Readers' comments (17)

  • "The government and senior judiciary have backed online dispute resolution as a way of removing lawyers from some parts of the system and reducing costs."

    As one of the authors of the CJC Report that triggered the debate on ODR within the justice system, I have to take issue on the above perceived objective. Whilst ODR is indeed disruptive to current practices, it opens up opportunities to lawyers to focus more on delivering cost effective services at the high end of the skills scale than they are able to do without ODR technologies and, importantly, by significantly increasing access to justice and thus the number of disputes that the public are able to pursue through the justice system, increases the market in which to offer legal services. Lawyers who embrace ODR and seek to exploit creatively what is available will benefit over those who simply wish to be protected by old practices that have seen access diminish.

    Jonathan Smithers is also quoted as saying:-

    "‘Many cases will be too complex for users to lodge a claim on an online court,’ he added."

    I suspect Jonathan is not aware of developments in ODR and how systems have developed way beyond the eBay model. In point of fact with technology benefits now starting to appear in practice such as assisted case framing, argument structuring, predictive analysis, intelligent solution suggestions, as well, not far beyond the horizon, cognitive computing , ODR has huge benefits to offer to the conduct and presentation of complex cases.

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  • Against the backdrop of a succession of abysmal failures by successive governments to organize the 'delivery' of a variety of properly functioning IT systems, I for one am not exactly brimful of confidence where this particular wheeze is concerned.

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  • Graham Ross misses the point: it's not about the lawyers it's about the lay client dealing with matters - they want advice, they want guidance from a trusted advisor and online works only within a limited parameters.

    I have used ODR as a mediator a couple of times, I think it's great and should be more widely available but please acknowledge the limitations rather than dismiss concerns which have merit.

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  • The current buzzwords in this area are "artificial intelligence" . By this is meant machines which think and solve problems.

    In reality this technology is decades away, but IT which aids data marshalling and document production is here now. I have no doubt that other toys are evolving as I type. Certainly the end of the paper centric office is comparatively close.

    However in the White Heat of innovation we must be wary of those who would do the profession harm. The Government aided and abetted by those who claim to be able to predict the legal services future, a unique gift not held by others, has gleefully adopted the virtual law mantra so as to mask its own justice cutting agendas.

    Equally we must also be sensitive to the fact that for many clients legal issues are finely nuanced, incapable of remote analysis by computer algorithms

    We practise in a people business where human interaction will retain its primacy, and it disappoints me greatly that because of a lack of real leadership there is vacuum being filled by those who wish us great harm.

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  • Paul (Bennett), you say "online works only within limited parameters. "

    Doesn't everything in the law? Currently the most limiting of all parameters, so far as access by the public to justice is concerned, is the cost of the current norms of justice. The Lord Chief Justice said this week that civil justice is now ‘unaffordable to most’. We, as a profession as a whole, should be ashamed of that fact and actively working for change. As with most other areas of service, technology is key to such change. ODR finally moves justice away from being accessible to all 'like the Ritz Hotel ', as Justice Mathews said over 100 years ago, (which was once overcome but returned following the destruction of Legal Aid) but to being accessible to all 'like a Travelodge'.

    Paul, you also say, "I have used ODR as a mediator a couple of times, I think it's great and should be more widely available but please acknowledge the limitations rather than dismiss concerns which have merit." That's great that you have helped pioneer online mediation and I apologise if I am wrong , but I imagine you mean you used web/video conferencing or email or a chatroom/forum. If so then, forgive me, but that is not where ODR has now moved to. It offers far more than just a medium for discussion.

    For example, ODR systems enable the public to better understand their position and prospects (there are systems operating now by - who I advise- with buttons such as 'Do I Have A Strong Case') as well as help with framing their cases and argument and even to the point of brainstorming mutual solutions. All this is done without professional/management cost but that does not obviate the benefit of a lawyer who, through case framing/argument structuring functionality, can get a 'heads up' much more quickly than by sitting down in an office with the client and writing down a statement at professional hourly rates. ODR can help unbundle much case/client prep work and thereby significantly increase the numbers of clients able to then pay for the reduced time of a lawyer to contribute his professional, rather than his/his firm's secretarial/management, skill.

    There is also the parameter of variation in lawyer skills/experience/knowledge. Current (not the 'decades away' of Stephen Larcombe) developments using IBM Watson technology (see my blog at!Artificial-Intelligence-Tackles-The-Law-What-Hope-For-Ned-Ludd-QC/c16l/5641a2b00cf2f51f32339b48) help create consistency in advice. Back to Travelodge again but imagine having a MiniMe (as in the Travelodge TV ads) who would, in seconds, give you quality, focused, research on case law, even better, on the statistical analysis of outcomes, agreed and imposed, in tens of thousands of anonymised and unreported, but similar, cases. Suddenly you can offer the benefit of empirical knowledge of the court, judge, and litigants in general, to your knowledge of text book law. You will still be needed for your professional judgment by those who can afford you. Importantly the numbers of those who will be able to afford you will be massively increased, not just by the reduction in your time and fee, but by the much greater numbers of people able to access the Online Court in the first place.

    Stephen says " Equally we must also be sensitive to the fact that for many clients legal issues are finely nuanced, incapable of remote analysis by computer algorithms" I agree (although in popular culture the public have come to see such nuances as self-serving creations of lawyers as in the oft mocked phrase of the caricature lawyer ''On the one hand you have a good case but on the other hand.....") You can spend a lot of time trying to identify and understand the nuance. Technology helps clear the fog and better present the nuance to both client and lawyer.

    Just as with the power looms that the Luddites marched against, whilst the numbers of employees creating garments by hand may have been reduced by the technology, the market exploded opening up much wider employment opportunities in the industry. Lets not put up protective barriers. You can criticise ODR proponents as myself as living too much on the horizon, or Michael Gove as being too politically motivated, but surely you have to give more consideration before shouting off against the views of vastly more experienced guardians of the law as the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls.

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  • Please could the Law Society Gazette include links in its online articles? There really ought to be a link to the Briggs report.

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  • "The Lord Chief Justice said this week that civil justice is now ‘unaffordable to most’."
    Yes, but he still takes a fat salary for presiding over it or even remaining as a judge. This is the same criticism as I made years ago when (not quite so) well-paid heads of Council Social Services and particularly Children's services repeatedly defended repeated failures to handle cases effectively (or at all) by complaining that the services were historically underfunded, which none but the politicians would deny. If they really cared about their clients, especially the children, the honest thing to have done was for all the Heads to get together and agree to resign on a given date if, what they not MPs considered, sufficient funds were not provided, and tie themselves to the stake by making that declaration publicly at the same time as they sent it to the HoC.
    Doctors could do the same for the NHS, which would be a prod, not just to the vulnerable and defenceless, but to the whole population to become angry, not just discontented, with government's self-interested management of it.
    It's not impossible to reject a 'responsibility' which was traditionally to your 'clients', when it becomes clear that that will surreptitiously be subordinated to provider interest. When tertiary education was re-organised in the early 90's and 'bums on seats' became a major criterion for funding, it was made clear that prospective students coming on advice days/evenings should be 'captured' unless we really had no course they would fit into, rather than, as I normally did, advise them that a course that most precisely fitted their, realistic, desires was to be found at an institution that was about to become a 'competitor'. The result was that 3 years later, I was out of a job but had already found another part-time one and realised that there were other opportunities to be taken, if money was more important than free time (I'm not an extravagant spender), a re-employment situation I supposed would be similar to the Council Dept heads and the doctors, who are already voting with their feet.

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  • Thing is, if you cut out the buzz words, the you-are-all-luddites-if-you-dont-agree-to-pay-me-money shouting, and the daydreaming, there's nothing concrete left.

    Pretty much as with all "innovations" in the legal services field in the last 15 years.

    As I said flippantly in another post on a different article, law is a social construct. It does not exist. There is no right and wrong. It is decided upon by people.

    I personally can not conceive of how this can be computerised. How is the computer going to decide whether a party has acted reasonably or not? Or whether a contract term is fair?

    Or whether the maintenance provision of the highways authority is a system that complies with the Act?

    And when a person goes on the online portal and tries to sue their District Council for breaching a contract, and the grounds are that the person tripped on a Defective paving slab, how is the computer going to know that the correct defendant is the County Council, and that the cause of action is breach of statutory duty?

    And when the District Council replies online and says "we deny liability as there was no contract with us and we do not maintain the pavement" how is the person going to know that this is a valid defence but he has alternative options, as opposed to this is a case worth proceeding with?

    And when he does eventually sue the County Council online, and they say "we deny liability because we inspected that road on the 3rd April and only two class 3 repairs were noted", how will the person know that this is a case worth running?

    You could win votes by saying, "now, kill all the lawyers - with a Little Help (tm) from Martin Lewis (a registered service mark of PLC) you can resolve all your disputes online, with only a few clicks!".

    But when people realise that those few clicks invariably end up with "computer says no" what then?

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  • This misses the point. Surely instead of having to tread on eggshells around some bad tempered crusty old judge, we would be far better removing their foibles from the system and have a computer decide the matter. I for one have very little faith in some judges particularly DJ's who tell you at the outset that this particular area of law is not their specialism, yet Court fees rocket !

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  • Graham is clearly rattled by Stephen's calm analysis since he has reverted to the overused "Luddite" jibe

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