Senior judges have given a ringing endorsement of progress on the modernisation of court processes – and sought to quell some of the misgivings about what the reforms mean in practice.
Sir Terence Etherton, master of the rolls, today told MPs he was an ‘unapologetic enthusiastic’ for the digitisation of systems across all jurisdictions, pointing to the ‘amazing 70,000 small claims processed online since March last year.’
‘The public have voted with their feet,’ he told the justice select committee. ‘If one wanted any justification at all for digitisation in access to justice, that provides it… there is just under a 90% satisfaction rate.’
His evidence was symptomatic of a largely positive assessment of the £1bn modernisation programme from Etherton, lord chief justice Lord Burnett of Maldon and Sir Ernest Ryder, senior president of tribunals.
Each sought to dampen criticism of the project by addressing what they identified as mistaken assumptions about the extent of change. The main contention was that talk of an ‘online court’ was wrong, along with predictions that video hearings would become mandatory or were imminent.
Etherton said: ‘One of the suggestions seems to be there is going to be, in addition to video hearings, some sort of online resolution for disputes by a process of computer exchanges between the client, the user, and the judge. Nobody, so far as I know, is actually suggesting that.’
He said a pilot was being run for claims under £300, to enable judges to decide cases on the papers, but in relation to all other claims ‘they will be dealt with either in a physical setting or in video hearings’.
Lord Burnett assured committee members there were no plans whatsoever to force litigants in person to use digital processes if they chose not to.
He added: ‘It is something that can be quite frustrating that we read of and hear about all sorts of theoretical concerns which don’t really attach to the projects that are currently under consideration.
‘To the extent that increased use of video will be part of what goes on, just as now, that will be within judicial control. A lot of people just don’t understand how much use of video there now is.’
The lord chief justice added there were real difficulties at present for any private individual to litigate in the civil courts, and that streamlining the process would make that easier.