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Online court system to allow judges to adjudicate from home by 2017

A new online court system that would allow judges to adjudicate civil cases from home and for the Ministry of Justice to sell off much of its court estate is being proposed by the body responsible for modernising the justice system.

A new report from the Civil Justice Council is calling for a radical shake-up of how the civil justice system handles low-value claims. It recommends the implementation of an online dispute resolution system as part of a new ‘HM Online Court’ (HMOC).

The report's principal author, Professor Richard Susskind, said: “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.

"On our model, an internet-based court would see judges deciding cases online, interacting electronically with parties. However, our suggested online court has a three-tier structure, and we expect most disputes to be resolved at the first two stages without a judge becoming involved."

The report cites eBay as a positive example of the use of ODR, as it adjudicates around 60 million disputes between buyers and traders each year through online dispute resolution.

Under the plans, tier one of HMOC would provide online evaluation. This would help users with a grievance to classify and categorize their problem, to be aware of their rights and obligations, and to understand the options and remedies available to them.

Tier two would feature online facilitation to bring a dispute to a speedy, fair conclusion without the involvement of judges. Using the internet online facilitators would review papers and statements and help parties through mediation and negotiation.  There would also be some automated negotiation, using systems that help parties resolve their differences without the intervention of human experts.

In tier three, ‘online judges’ would step in. These would be regular members of the judiciary who will decide suitable cases or parts of cases on an online basis, largely on the basis of papers submitted to them electronically as part of a structured process of online pleading.

These tiers would also be supported by telephone conferences where necessary.

The Civil Justice Council is calling for a pilot of the system followed by a full roll-out in 2017.

In making the case for the new system, the report predicts that a new online system would create significant savings for the justice system in both fixed and operating costs.

It says: “The unit costs of civil claims (that is, the cost per individual claim) conducted by judges sitting online (from their homes, for instance) will be significantly lower than the costs of judges sitting in courts. And, if a large number of disputes come to be resolved by HMOC, this would have significant implications for the court estate – there will be a reduction in need for many of the current buildings and the land on which they sit.”

The report also argues that online facilitation (tier two) will greatly reduce the number of cases that actually reach judges, and therefore will be much cheaper to resolve as those involved in handling the dispute will be less senior.

It would also give more people access to justice, making it more affordable and user-friendly and also speeding the process up.

Lord Dyson, chair of the Civil Justice Council, said: "This an important and timely report.

"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.

"Its aim is to broaden access to justice and resolve disputes more easily, quickly and cheaply. The challenge lies in delivering a system that fulfils that objective."

A spokesman for PCS, which represents many Ministry of Justice and Crown Prosecution staff, said the union was worried it might make access to justice harder for some.

"We welcome any move to improve access to justice but the real risk with this is that it could have the opposite effect,” he said. “Not everyone has access to the internet or is comfortable using it for official or financial purposes, especially older people and those from poorer households. This government's term of office has been characterised by damaging cuts that have made accessing our justice system harder, from courts closures to legal aid, so we should all be very wary of anything that follows this trend."

The Ministry of Justice had not replied to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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