Proposed Online Court to Improve Access to Justice for Small Businesses
Lord Justice Briggs’ Interim Report for the Civil Courts Structure review was published at the end of December 2015, detailing the consideration of an online court system to be used by Litigants without Lawyers used as an alternative for the current costly, protracted and time consuming county court procedures.
What is the proposed online court?
At this stage, the online court proposal is somewhat vague in that Lord Justice Briggs has simply laid out the reasoning behind why an online court may be an effective tool, and also the general ideas of how the court could work. We expect there to be much more detailed plans in place in the near future, as Lord Justice Briggs has invited comments on the proposal, of which I’m sure will be used to inform and expand upon next stages.
Essentially the online court will provide a platform for the resolution of ‘relatively simple and modest value disputes’ rather than complex issues that the online court software may not be able to accommodate, according to Lord Justice Briggs. Subsequently, during the first stages of the online court it has been proposed that its use be ‘confined to the resolution of money claims’, as this is arguably one of the more straight forward claims that can be carried out. The report states that all necessary documents will be gathered online for each party to view, with online help at each stage of the process, as well as telephone support.
Why have an online court?
With county courts facing closures and high court fees the online court would seek to provide improved access to justice for smaller businesses with ‘ordinary financial resources’. Lord Justice Briggs goes on to analyse the downfalls of the current court structure as being prone to errors in form filling, and ‘widely perceived to be slow, ineffective and expensive’. The digitisation of the court system is perceived within the report as much more cost effective than current county court procedures, with a suggested initial value ceiling of £25,000, with plans to increase the limit.
In our experience bringing a defended matter to a hearing in the small claims track (currently debts under £10,000) takes considerable time and mistakes are often made, such as defended actions being transferred to the wrong court. These issues are mostly attributed to the ongoing financial cuts and thereby understaffing of the local courts.
An online process that would automate all the notices required to take a matter to a hearing would reduce the delays that currently exist, as well as reducing the work load on the already stretched court staff.
It is widely acknowledged that currently a lot of time is wasted because the Litigators in Person are unaware of how to put together the full basis of claim or defence, and all relative documentation to be relied on at a hearing. Therefore, Lord Justice Briggs’ recommends that an online system would ask questions to both the claimant and the defendant to ensure the full basis of the claim and full details of the defence are documented, together with having basic legal advice available for both parties is a positive step forward. The online court will not only reduce time at a hearing but by ensuring all details are available to both parties, but it will also encourage the parties to settle the matter before the hearing, whether by themselves or due to the success of mediation.
Lord Justice Briggs goes on to suggest many hearings could be conducted via conference calls as well as face to face, which will make it easier and more cost effective for both parties to be represented adequately.
Whilst we are in favour of the concept of this bold step forward and embracing the technological age, the success will rely on the software used to have more than adequate and appropriate functionality to deal with all possible scenarios, and regularly updated to meet both the court’s and user needs. The success will also rely on easily available, fully trained and skilled personnel manning the support lines to assist users in all aspects of the process. Overall, significant funds need to be dedicated to not just the initial design and development but the ongoing running costs as, if the two above points are not adequately met, there is a danger that the proposed Online Court will fail before it has had chance to get started.
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