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New online court must take 'post-Amazon world' into consideration

Access to the courts should be a constitutional right, says Legal Education Foundation report

10 March 2016

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The service delivered by proposed online courts must be in step with the digital expectations of the modern consumer, the Legal Education Foundation (TLEF) has advised.

While welcoming Lord Justice Briggs's review of the civil courts structure and the need for an online court, the charity fear that the current 30-week target for resolving disputes already proves to be unacceptably slow to a public that expect online services to deliver quick results.

'The courts have to take their place in a world where, in sales transactions, user expectations are set by Amazon's next day delivery service,' said professor Roger Smith OBE, solicitor and author of the latest TLEF report.

For routine small claims of under £25,000, the report suggests that a target of 15 weeks be set as the starting point to resolve such disputes online.

The charity contends that the small claims court should not be labelled 'the online court', or created as a 'functionally separate online court'. Instead, online procedures should extend throughout all courts.

Furthermore, the new court could be used for a wider range of matters than those suggested in Briggs LJ's report, and could include uncontested divorce cases.

With research suggesting that the proportion of those willing to use online court services may be as low as 50 per cent, TLEF argue that the scheme be piloted, rather than introduced in a 'big bang'.

The observation echoes comments made by the president of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, who said: 'Experience has shown that making changes to one part of the justice system may have unintended consequences.'

In addition, the report argues that decisions should be made by a named and independent judge and not case officers.

'Adjudication is a judicial function which may not be properly delegated to someone without the independence to be expected of a judge,' said the report. 'It would surely not be proper for a member of the Ministry of Justice Staff to decide disputes.'

Believing that a greater use of IT in courts will reduce fees and increase access to justice, Smith wrote: 'We suspect that the rapidly declining numbers using the small claims procedure and the employment tribunal illustrates the effect of increased fees.'

While Briggs LJ referred to the importance of preserving a 'justice brand' in his recent interim report , the TLEF report goes further, calling for access to courts at 'proportionate cost' to be 'seen as, effectively, a constitutional right'.

Other recommendations include 'court classes' to teach the public how to use the online service, as successfully demonstrated in parts of California and that advice agencies, like Citizens Advice, should have their websites linking to the online court to give easy access for the public.

Finally, consideration must be given as to whether online courts should be mobile phone compatible.

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