The “D.I.Y” County Court
19 January 2016 by Lauren Hancock
It has long been a subject of contention. Can ‘robots’ replace people in the workplace? It is clear that across the board, in almost every profession, technology is being used to streamline work processes and improve efficiency. Back in September, the FJG Marketing team considered the possibility that, within the next 20 years, the roles of many could in fact be substituted by machines. They assured us, on the basis of statistics released in an Oxford University Study, that both Solicitors and Barristers were relatively safe with only a 3% chance of replacement. Now, in the wake of the December 2015 Civil Courts Structure Review that chance may have considerably increased for those involved in the civil litigation process!
In his interim report, Lord Justice Briggs considers how a drastic restructuring of the civil court system could be implemented to both improve access to justice for litigants in person and redistribute the high volume of work in the civil division of the Court of Appeal.
There is clear potential for technology to be used to a greater extent by the civil courts to assist in the efficiency and speed of case handling. Lord Justice Briggs makes note of the benefits of moving towards a “paper free” civil court system, recognising that it is now technically possible to free the courts from the constraints of storing, transmitting and communicating information on paper. Indeed in the Crown Court, a Digital Case System (DCS)will become a compulsory feature nationally in March of this year, allowing computerised access to case documents in criminal prosecutions.
More controversially the key focus of Lord Justice Briggs, was the setting out of plans to construct an ‘online court’ system, intended to deal with money claims up to the value of £25,000.00, a fact he describes as the “single most radical and important change” with which his review is concerned. He further proposes that the aims of such a court could only be achieved should its use be made compulsory.
Fundamentally, the plans for this online court are based on a three tier programme set out in the review as follows;
- Stage 1: A mainly automated process in which litigants are assisted in identifying their case online and required to upload the documents and other evidence which the court will require.
- Stage 2: Involves a mix of conciliation and case management, mainly by Case Officer, conducted partly online, partly by telephone, but probably not face to face.
- Stage 3: Consists of a determination by judges, either on the documents, on the telephone, by video or at face-to-face hearings.
Ultimately, the purpose of this online court is to provide a platform, for suitable cases, to be litigated by the parties without recourse to legal representation, in theory offering greater access to justice for all. The current process for bringing a civil claim, he contends, is governed “by a complicated code intelligible only to lawyers”, necessitating the need for system which is accessible by litigants in person.
Certain exclusions are proposed, including possession claims, claims for non-monetary relief, class claims and claims involving children.
The provisional view of Lord Justice Briggs is that personal injury claims should also be excluded given that it is an invariable feature of such cases that an injured private individual is ranged against a large insurance company. In such cases he states that nothing short of legal representation for the Claimant will ensure a just outcome.
Legal professionals in the civil sphere may take some comfort in the fact that Lord Justice Briggs does recognise that the intention of the online court would be to deal with relatively simple and modest value disputes. It should however be noted that whilst some disputes appear, on first glance, to be relatively straightforward, they may in fact involve a complexity of law and therefore an online court structure should allow for the transfer of these cases to a more appropriate Court.
It has been provisionally decided that Lord Justice Briggs’ review be completed by July of this year, before which time a further process of consultation and review must be undertaken.
It is impossible to predict the extent to which any of these proposed changes may come into force; after all a project to re-structure the civil courts in England and Wales was initiated some 10 years ago and due to heavy opposition, was suspended and then ultimately abandoned.
Lord Justice Briggs himself recognises, that the move to a paperless system alone will bring about a ‘substantial, difficult and probably painful transitional period’ before change can be achieved. The implementation of an online court is likely to prove even more troublesome.
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