The proposed online court is a ‘pragmatic first step’ on the road to a fully integrated online and conventional court service, an influential body has predicted.

Professor Richard Susskind (pictured), who leads a panel of experts on digital dispute resolution, said proposals by Lord Justice Briggs for an online court for small claims were to be welcomed.

But the idea of the online court is merely an ‘interim concept’, he stressed, before all cases or parts of cases are eligible to be allocated online.

‘Over time, we expect more and more work will be allocated to the online court and its use will become commonplace rather than exceptional,’ said Susskind, who was speaking on behalf of the online dispute resolution advisory group of the Civil Justice Council in its official response to Briggs.  

‘In turn, as its workload increases, many outmoded practices of the traditional courts will be replaced. The online court is the spearhead that leads the way to an integrated online and physical court service of the future.’

Susskind, whose three-stage process idea forms the basis of Briggs’ initial plans, said the role of case officers at the second stage can be much greater than currently envisaged.

‘Depending on the nature of dispute, the case officer, engaged in what we called “facilitation”, should be able, in an effort to contain disputes, to draw on a wide range of techniques – not just mediation or early neutral evaluation, but also negotiation, nudging, sometimes even "gently knocking heads together”.’

But Susskind denied this means lawyers will have no role in any future online court, and the response appears guarded on Briggs’ suggestion that the online court would be ‘designed… for use by litigants without lawyers’.

The professor said the online court should be sufficiently easy to use that litigants in person can enforce their rights, but it would not be ‘appropriate, for public policy and legal reasons’ to exclude lawyers altogether.

Susskind said the online courts should be designed in a way that ‘conveys the authority of traditional courts’ and engenders the same confidence’. The design, he added, will need to differentiate it from private dispute resolution services available on the internet.

But once the online court is up and running, there is scope for expanding it beyond civil justice into family and tribunal work.

Susskind added: ‘Insofar as is possible, we strongly recommend that the same broad systems be used across all three jurisdictions.’

Briggs is set to publish his final report in July.