The long-awaited reincarnation of the Courts Bill finally surfaced today – paving the way for online dispute resolution to become a central tenet of the justice system.
Now named the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill, the legislation will allow for court staff to deal with ‘routine matters’ and free up judges’ time to concentrate on other matters.
The bill, being introduced in the House of Lords today, also includes measures to deploy judges flexibly across jurisdictions and allow them to gain experience of different types of cases. It will, insists the government, 'shift justice from slow, paper-based systems to streamlined, efficient digital services’ and is the 'first step' in legislation to modernise the system.
Similar legislation in the form of the Prisons and Courts Bill was halted last year by the early General Election, with little progress since. The National Audit Office noted earlier this month that hesitation on enacting primary legislation could scupper the government’s plans to modernise the courts system by 2022.
Last year’s bill set out plans for online courts, more video and telephone conferences and ultimately the removal of many civil and criminal cases from the traditional courtroom setting.
Justice minister Lucy Frazer QC said: ‘This bill supports our fundamental transformation of the justice system, making courts easier to use, more efficient and fit for the digital age. By enabling judges to hear cases in different courts and tribunals and giving court staff powers to deal with routine issues, we will make our courts more efficient and effective, while making better use of taxpayer’s money.’
The Ministry of Justice states judicial powers will be delegated to ‘appropriately qualified and experienced’ court staff who will be authorised and supervised by judges.
Authorised staff could carry out tasks such as issuing a summons, taking a plea, extending time for applications, or considering applications for variations of directions made in private or public law cases. Decisions on which powers authorised staff may carry out will be made by the independent procedure rule committee.
Although today’s MoJ statement does not specifically refer to the online court or case officers, the legislation is expected to pave the way for these intermediaries to handle straightforward money claims valued at up to £25,000, as envisaged by Lord Briggs following his review of civil justice. Judges would join the process only after these claims have gone through triage and resolution attempts by case officers.