Digital Justice: Is Britain ready for virtual courtrooms?

Britons could soon be receiving justice via Skpe under radical new plans which could see thousands of court cases dealt with over the internet. A new report by the Civil Justice Council has recommended that civil court cases be dealt with by an Ebay-style online disputes system with many cases being resolved through “automated negotiation” without any human intervention.

Her Majesty’s Online Court would deal with hearings for cases involving less than £25,000 and could even be extended to some family court cases and tribunals. The proposed scheme would be modelled on eBay’s Online Dispute Resolution system, which has settled 60 million disagreements between traders.

Prof Susskind, who is IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice said:

“This report is not suggesting improvements to the existing system. It is calling for a radical and fundamental change in the way that our court system deals with low value civil claims. Online Dispute Resolution is not science-fiction. There are examples from around the world that clearly demonstrate its current value and future potential, not least to litigants in person.”

Lord Dyson, who is Master of the Rolls and one of the most senior judges in the country argued that Britain’s justice system has been slow to adapt to changes in technology:

“There is no doubt that ODR has enormous potential for meeting the needs – and preferences – of the system and its users in the 21st Century. At a time of major pressure on public spending and high legal costs, ODR offers a major opportunity to help many people for whom public funding to resolve disputes is not available, or for whom legal costs are prohibitive.

At a time of cuts in legal aid, reducing waste from the system is essential as currently small claims up to £10,000 and personal injury claims of up to £1000 make up almost 70 per cent of total hearings in the civil courts. The strain on the court system is obvious it would seem that the new online system has the potential to resolve large numbers of cases every year and reduce costs for the taxpayer. The moves could also save money for the Ministry of Justice, which has suffered a real-terms budget cut of 27 per cent over the past five years.

The judicial system can be slow to adapt to new technologies, however, just last year the Ministry of Justice said that it wanted criminal courtrooms to become digital by 2016. Hopefully an online system working with the conventional courts will increase access to justice and modernise the legal process in a system with an increasingly large number of unrepresented litigants.

There is no evident reason why justice cannot be dispensed online and it is true that we are now accustomed to conducting business and accessing public services online. There are, however, some important questions which will need to be resolved before the scheme can be successfully rolled out. The report claims that the online service will widen access to justice, however, there are reasonable concerns that this would create a two tier justice system with a disparity between those who cannot afford legal representation and those who can’t. There are also issues of transparency as it is important to ensure that the public and journalists have access to deliberations in a fair and open system.

The report proposes that a pilot scheme be established before a full rollout in 2017.