The City of London Law Society (CLLS) has thrown its backing behind the creation of an online court for claims up to £25,000, breaking ranks with the rest of the profession which has largely warned against it.
Responding to an interim report from Lord Justice Briggs on the structure of civil courts, the CLLS said that an online court could bring ‘huge benefits’ and would constitute a major step towards enhancing access to justice for individuals and small businesses who would otherwise find it difficult to secure justice.
The society also said it had no objection in principle to the online court hearing claims up to £25,000 and no fundamental objection to the court having exclusive jurisdiction within its remit.
Its response puts it at odds with other representative bodies in the legal sector.
The Bar Council has warned that an online court could entrench a two-tiered judicial system, while the Law Society said it would support the use of the court only for straightforward money disputes worth up to £10,000.
The CLLS’s response was written by the society’s litigation committee, which is chaired by Simon James (pictured) of magic circle firm Clifford Chance.
Despite backing the overall idea, the CLLS did sound some caution over the details. It said the online court would need extensive testing and piloting, and noted that its success depends on a computerised ‘triage’ system which does not yet exist.
Its reponse also warned that litigation in England and Wales could mushroom if the court becomes too successful.
The response said: ‘If the online court becomes seen as an easy way of extracting money for losses perceived to be the fault of someone else, litigation could become the first resort rather than the last […] this could have a deleterious effect on business and other relationships.’
The CLLS suggested that a lower limit could be set on the value of claims, and fees should be set at a level which would deter frivolous claims. It also suggested enabling successful defendants to receive a fixed allowance for costs.
The society’s response also said it had concerns about the proposals for case officers, which it said might not achieve the stated objective of pushing down the work done by expensive judges, as it is likely most litigants will refer to a judge any adverse decisions taken by a case officer.
It suggested that case officers should be treated as judges, with genuine authority of their own, and if they are not treated as judges and do not carry out judicial functions, this casts doubt on the need to create a new cadre of court staff.