Digitisation of the civil courts of the future

Digitisation of the civil courts of the future
The Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice, Sir Terence Etherton, delivered the Lord Slynn Memorial Lecture on 14th June and laid out the plans for the 21st century court system.

Managed decline of the court system

There is a six-year plan to modernise the court estate, a core element of which is the IT system. A decade of austerity, which has led to a reduction in court administration and staff, the judicial complement, maintenance of the court estate and the closure of parts of the estate. This has been happening at the same time as the reduction in Legal Aid and the increase in court fees, which has led to a rise in the number of litigants in person, as claimants are looking to keep their costs down. Their lack of knowledge of the judicial process and rules has placed an increased strain on the court system. Sir Terence says that what was needed was a complete rethink of how justice is delivered, to stop the “managed decline”. Part of the six-year plan is the creation of an Online Solutions Court and the digitisation of the court system.

Common approach for civil, family and tribunal claims

The Online Court system will develop new systems and processes that will be designed for litigants in person, rather than simply digitising the current procedures. It aims to develop a common approach, online procedural rules and online claims portal for civil, family and tribunal claims, again to improve efficiency and streamline administration. It will also embed problem solving – whether meditation, EDE (early neutral evaluation) or a new online dispute resolution service – as one of the three stages of the online court.
  • Stage one - pre-issue, covering some of the same ground as the pre-action protocols, to help claimants find the right sources of legal advice
  • Stage two - case officers helping claimants with ADR (alternative dispute resolution) including a new online dispute resolution service
  • Stage three - adjudication by the judge, but by telephone, video-link or on the papers, rather than a hearing in a traditional courtroom
The new online court and proposed new online procedure rules committee will require primary legislation. This was due to be incorporated in the Prison and Courts Bill 2017, which has now been dropped.

Impact of digitisation on the courts estate

Digitisation will also affect the legal community, with the development and rollout of online processes, following on the success of the CE-File system introduced into the Rolls Building in 2016, which allows a clam to be filed online, anywhere in the world at any time of day. There is also a civil money claims project pilot underway for claims under £10,000. Apart from the immediate benefits to lawyers of no physical filing cost and the option to outsource this, digitisation will also mean that case files will be available in the Cloud, so will not need to be physically stored or transported between court hearing centres. Sir Terence sees this opening up the potential for economies of scale by creating national courts administration, instead of this being localised to the court. This, in turn, will enable the reappraisal of where court buildings are located and the setting up of multi-court centres as there will no longer be a need to differentiate between tribunal, county, Crown and magistrates’ courts buildings. Traditional court rooms are costly, but as fewer will be required with the online court, this will create the opportunity to develop areas for litigants to access the justice system digitally. “pop-up” courts in public buildings are also being considered, with the Tunbridge Wells Borough council chamber currently being used as a test centre for civil claims.

Conclusion

This modernisation is undoubtedly needed and will be welcomed by court users, although, of course, these new facilities need to be completed, tested and fully functional as quickly as possible to mitigate the impact of the large-scale programme of court closures.

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