A landmark review of civil justice has today backed the creation of an online court for claims worth up to £25,000.
An interim report from Lord Justice Briggs (pictured) recommends urgent work to design the structure and software needed for a reorganisation of courts, particularly the online court. The Judicial Office is now inviting further comments before the final report is completed in the summer.
Online dispute resolution was a key proposal from legal futurologist Professor Richard Susskind and the independent Civil Justice Council in a report to the senior judiciary last February.
Briggs was tasked in July to review the civil justice court structure and today reports that he had found a ‘clear and pressing need’ to create an online court for claims up to £25,000.
The report says ODR will give litigants ‘effective access to justice without having to incur the disproportionate cost of using lawyers’.
As per Susskind’s recommendations, the online court would work in three stages: the first a largely automated service for identifying issues; the second conciliations and case management by case officers; the third resolution by judges.
Briggs acknowledges the online court would be the first court ever to be designed in England and Wales for use by litigants without lawyers.
He adds: ‘The online court will mark a radical departure from the traditional courts (outside the small claims track) by being less adversarial, more investigative, and by making the judge his or her own lawyer.’
Briggs says judges may well need more training in the law relevant to a ‘substantially wider caseload’.
Several questions need answering before the review is complete in July, Briggs adds, including what types of claim should be excluded, what costs will be paid by each side and whether any appeal should be made to circuit judges.
In addition to online courts, the interim review suggests the transfer of some of judges’ more ‘routine and non-contentious’ work to case officers supervised by judges, although parties should retain the right to have a case officer’s decision reconsidered by a judge.
Briggs wants a stronger concentration of civil expertise among circuit judges and district judges, and for all civil work with a regional connection to be tried in the regions, regardless of value, subject to specialist exceptions such as patents.
The interim report also asks whether the employment tribunal and employment appeal tribunal should be integrated into the structure of the civil courts.
Small claims cases worth up to £10,000 account for almost 70% of hearings in civil courts in England and Wales. However, the number of small claims going to hearing has fallen over recent years, from 51,046 in 2003 to 29,603 in 2013.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers commented: ‘As we said in our response to the first stage of the review, making changes to one part of the justice system may have unintended consequences for another part and for the people who rely on it. In particular, we have grave concerns that the proposed online court may exclude people's ability to access legal advice for cases up to £25,000 in value.
‘This is a very large sum of money. People seeking to recover monies due and owing to them will still need legal advice on their claim as well as, in many cases, assistance with navigating through the process, whether online or otherwise.
‘While the online court may not require advocacy, there will still be a need for legal advice to ensure that everyone, including the vulnerable, can access justice. We will strongly oppose any approach that reduces access to justice and results in justice in England and Wales only being available to those who can afford it.’