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CJC report calls for online dispute resolution system to increase access to justice

A new Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) system should be developed in England and Wales to increase access to justice and to streamline the court process, an advisory group to the Civil Justice Council has recommended.

In a report, which can be viewed here, the group said a state-run ‘online court’ should operate alongside the traditional court system.

The report suggested the following route for those seeking redress for a problem or grievance: 

  • Tier 1 – Dispute avoidance – online evaluation of the problem with the support of interactive aids and information services. “This will help people diagnose their issues and identify the best way of resolving them.”
  • Tier 2 – Dispute containment – online facilitation. “Trained, experienced facilitators bring an objective eye to the problem and try to help the parties reach agreement on resolving the issue.”
  • Tier 3 – Dispute resolution – Online judges. “Professional judges will decide suitable cases online, largely on the basis of papers received electronically, but with an option of telephone hearings. The decisions would be as binding and enforceable as court rulings.”

The report urged Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to set up a pilot “as soon as is practicable with a view to rolling out an online court based on the findings”. This pilot would focus on small claims of low monetary value.

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The advisory group acknowledged that some changes to the Civil Procedure Rules were likely to be needed to allow the pilot to go ahead. Detailed project planning would have to consider if legislation was needed.

The report accepted that HMCTS would want to make a full feasibility assessment of the proposals.

The Civil Justice Council has meanwhile authorised the advisory group to continue its work so that it can offer expert advice and support to assist the developmental work.

The report suggested that the first phase would be progressed in 2015-16 with an online court system pilot, ahead of an anticipated full roll-out in 2017.

Professor Richard Susskind, the report's principal author, said: “This report is not suggesting improvements to the existing system. It is calling for a radical and fundamental change in the way that our court system deals with low value civil claims.

“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.”

He added: “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.”

Lord Dyson, the Master of the Rolls (and Chairman 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."

Responding to the CJC advisory group report, a Bar Council spokesperson said: “The use of new technologies and different ways of organising court processes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the administration of justice should be supported. The creation of an on-line court, with three-tiers of service, brings a fresh angle to debates about access to justice in times of austerity. We shall study the report and the associated materials with great interest.

“Like the authors of this report, we are deeply concerned about the rise in litigants in person in many areas of law. Making processes easier, more accessible, and simpler are laudable objectives. But we must be wary of creating a system which is over-simplified and does not do justice to the circumstances of particular cases.

“Justice will not be served if people with complex claims find themselves funnelled down routes that are designed for a quick result at the expense of proper consideration of relevant facts in their case. Dispute resolution, on-line or in court, must deliver the same quality of justice as more traditional routes.” 

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