Paragraph 6.5 of the Briggs report refers to the proposed online court as the ‘first court ever to be designed in this country, from start to finish, for use by litigants without lawyers’.
How is this to be achieved? By having an online ‘triage system’ in which, by a series of questions, the facts and contentions in a case can be drawn out through an online questionnaire, with similar online questionnaires to follow for subsequent stages.
Although now proposed only for ‘civil disputes of modest value or complexity’ (with little to suggest how complexity or value are to be assessed), the report states that the ‘ambition of the reform programme is that the whole of the civil courts should be digitised’.
There are two proposals here. First, that ‘modest’ disputes should be resolved more simply than at present; and second, that this should happen using IT – with IT becoming central to case management in other cases in due course.
Successive governments have had unhappy and costly experiences with major IT initiatives, and others have remarked on the expense that can arise from the effective maintenance of such a system.
To avoid another large IT fiasco, and the inevitable expense that would come with it, it is surely better to devise a simple resolution system and get that working properly. Only when this is achieved should attention turn to how it might be run online. A simple system could be an updating of the old county court small claims procedure, or adapted from some other tried and trusted process like adjudication. To attempt both at the same time strikes me as very risky and potentially very expensive.
Although I have some sympathy with other commentators over Professor Susskind’s views, they can be useful. Without innovative thinking, the danger is that all reform proposals will be framed by the current system, which is not brilliant, and (for small or ‘modest’ claims at least) is too expensive. I rarely agree with the professor, but his contributions are stimulating.
I am wary of any justice system which relies on IT and the participants having access to IT. Some people are not IT-literate, or cannot afford IT systems, or have very limited IT access. Are they to be excluded from the justice system? Their disputes are likely to be ‘modest’ and requiring online access would be akin to saying that only the literate can have justice.
Justice should be universal and blind to the imperfections of those seeking it. Or it is not justice.
Simon Cockshutt, London W5