A long-awaited report on the future of civil courts has recommended a new online court for dealing with all monetary claims up to £25,000.
The court will be designed to be used by people with ‘minimum assistance’ from lawyers with its own set of user-friendly rules.
Lord Justice Briggs (pictured), whose final report is published today, said the online court would eventually become the compulsory forum for resolving cases within its jurisdiction.
As expected, the three-stage process will involve automated triage to decide on the merits of a case, arbitration handled by an assigned case officer and a judicial decision if the case cannot be resolved any other way.
Briggs said lawyers must now face up to the challenge of unbundling and find a way to provide advice in the new system at a fixed recoverable cost.
Briggs stressed it will be for others to decide which, if any, of the reforms will be adopted, but he said the online court will help to increase access to justice for those with unmet needs.
‘If they are all substantially implemented, then the essentially high quality of the civil justice service provided by the courts of England and Wales will be greatly extended to a silent community to whom it is currently largely inaccessible, and both restored and protected against the weaknesses and threats which currently affect it.’
Briggs was commissioned to look at civil court structures by the lord chief justice and master of the rolls a year ago.
The review is designed to coincide with a programme for reform of the courts by HM Court and Tribunals Service, which will involve significant modernisation of system.
Briggs recommends case officers, made up from a senior body of court lawyers and other officials, could assist with certain functions currently carried out by judges, such as paperwork and uncontentious matters.
The case officers would be trained and supervised by judges, and decisions subject to reconsideration by judges on request by a party.
In his report, Briggs acknowledges some will be ‘critical, sceptical or fearful’ of the online court concept, with the concern that users will be denied justice, the exclusion of lawyers will affect the outcome, or that £25,000 is too high a threshold.
He also addresses the fear that the online court will be ‘blighted by government incompetence in IT, or by under-funding’.
The judge said it was a ‘misconception’ that amounts below £25,000 were not treated seriously, or that justice offered by the online court would be a form of online dispute resolution.
While a form of ODR (where the parties seek to settle online without the intervention of a further human participant) may well be a part of the process, Briggs said the main form of conciliation at stage two is to be by human intervention, while all decisions about substantive rights are to be made by a judge.
As well as the online court, Briggs recommends the re-establishment of a court-based out-of-hours private mediation service in county court hearing centres, along the lines of the former National Mediation Helpline.
He wants a wider deployment of judge, with the principle that ‘no case is too big to be resolved in the regions’. Briggs said the current shortage of circuit judges specialising in civil work ‘needs an urgent remedy’.
The concept of the District Registry as a place for the issue of High Court proceedings will eventually be replaced by a single portal for the issue of all civil proceedings, and should then be abolished.
Briggs says the family court should be given a shared jurisdiction (with the Chancery Division and the county court) for dealing with Inheritance Act disputes and disputes about co-ownership of homes.
He added there ‘continues to be a case’ for convergence between the employment tribunal (and employment appeal tribunal) and the civil courts, but the detail was a matter beyond the scope of this review.
The lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said: ‘Lord Justice Briggs has delivered a detailed and innovative final report, which the senior judiciary – working with the government and HM Courts and Tribunal Service – will now consider with care.’
The Law Society cautiously welcomed the report. Chief executive Catherine Dixon said:
’The final report on the online court indicates that IT may improve court efficiency. Importantly it also recognises the vital role solicitors will play in helping clients navigate the new system and ensuring that they are able to access justice
'We are particularly pleased that Lord Justice Briggs has recommended that cost recovery should be possible and that, if a client wins their case, they will be able to recover the cost of their solicitor’s fee for initial advice and legal expertise. This was a key recommendation made by the Law Society in its response to Lord Justice Briggs’ earlier report.'
However Chancery Lane sounded a note of caution on the importance of ensuring online courts do not limit access to justice. 'It is vital that ordinary and vulnerable people using the online court are not prejudiced when claiming against large organisations,' Dixon said. 'Clarification is also needed about which claims will and will not be included as part of the online court.'
She added: 'Solicitors are ideally placed to support those who choose to use the online court as they can advise at an early stage about the merits of the claim. Solicitors can also help clients to understand and comply with procedural requirements, thereby speeding up the process and reducing cost.'