Online dispute resolution will ’become the norm’ in less complex civil, family and tribunals cases, the annual bar conference heard today.

Sir Ernest Ryder, senior president of tribunals, urged lawyers to ‘have faith’ in Transforming Justice, the £1bn modernisation programme announced by the government and senior judiciary last month.

Ryder said the next few years will see the biggest changes to the justice system since the 1870s, but stressed that access must remain paramount.

He denied the government’s austerity agenda was the driver of reform, arguing that this approach ’runs the risk of price rationing, the antithesis of equal or fair access to justice’. However, he said austerity has ‘forced us to face up to the system’s limitations’. 

He added: ’We must address lengthy delays that are inimical to justice and to welfare, processes and language that are unintelligible to all but the specialist user and a system that is at times so costly the only solution so far has been to impair access to justice by removing legal representation.’

Ryder said the aim is to create a 21st-century environment ’where paper-based processes are to digital processes and cloud-based systems what the horse-drawn carriage is to space travel’.

Chantal-Aimee Doerries, chair of the bar, said while the profession supports the idea of ‘widening access’, this has been eroded by cuts to social welfare and legal aid.

Citing statistics from the Ministry of Justice which showed that one third of cases in the family court had no legal representative for either party, she called for a full review of the effects of legal aid cuts, which should be carried out ‘as a matter of urgency’. 

Doerries added that despite criticism, a barrister’s role is at the ’heart of the justice system’. Barristers are ’not mere economic actors’, acting in the interests of consumers, but also serve the public interest as ’part of the glue that holds society together’. 

’Despite challenges, we will continue to survive and thrive,’ she said. The profession ’should not expect to be popular’ but should at least be valued.

Doerries also announced the launch of a ‘wellbeing portal’—an online service aimed at supporting barristers and encouraging them to address their professional and personal concerns.

The launch follows a ‘Research into Wellbeing’ survey undertaken in 2014 that surveyed 2,500 barristers.

According to Doerries, one in three respondents found it difficult to stop worrying, two in three felt showing signs of stress equals a weakness
 and one in six felt low in spirits ‘most of the time’.

Louisa Nye, chair of the young bar, said the younger members of the profession in particular are living in ‘deeply uncertain times’.

She said the costs of qualification leave many newly qualified barristers nursing debts of between £30,000 and £70,000, and they were also demoralised by ‘almost daily’ attacks characterising lawyers as a ’scourge on society’.   

‘Barristers are not a scourge on society. Advocates ensure people’s rights are protected. I call on [HMCTS] and judges to continue take advice from us as technology changes how the courts operate,’ she said.