No Lawyers Needed: Proposing an Internet-Based Court Service in England and Wales

(Courtesy of Richard Susskind). 

(Courtesy of Richard Susskind). 

The Civil Justice Council submitted a report on 16 February 2015 to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals proposing an online dispute resolution (ODR) system promising to radically change the way in which low-value civil claims are handled in Wales and England. This ODR, which would be known as Her Majesty’s Online Court (hereafter HM Online Court), would be an online platform that would resolve civil disputes with claims up to £25,000 (approximately $38,476). Largely the brainchild of Professor Richard Susskind, the proposal for HM Online Court is founded on the premise that it will employ the latest technology in an effort to increase access to justice, encourage savings in the cost of the current judiciary system, and promote efficiency in small-claim civil cases.

In an interview with the BBC a spokesperson for the Law Society acknowledged that there has long been a tradition of underinvestment in IT within the court system in England and Wales. The Civil Justice Council proposes that the implementation of an ODR system would be in line with the changing social climate. The reality is, digital technology is becoming commonplace in the United Kingdom and more and more services are being made available online. With major pressure being placed on the government to cut public spending and critiques about the high cost of legal services, an ODR would greatly increase access to justice while saving substantial amounts of money for the court system.

The online dispute resolution (ODR) model envisages a three-tier system:

    1. Online evaluation of cases in which information on civil disputes is readily available to users. This service would be offered at no expense to the user, and is meant to help users resolve disputes before they become larger legal issues, when possible.
    2. Online “facilitators” then work to review provided paperwork and guide parties through mediation or encourage negotiation in the effort to reach a fair conclusion quickly without the involvement of a judge. This tier would also employ “automated negotiation systems” that resolve disputes without human intervention.
    3. Finally, if no agreement has been reached at tier two, judges will resolve disputes via this online platform. Just as in a physical court of law, their decisions carry the same gravitas, being both binding and enforceable.

In the Civil Justice Council’s report, they mention that resolving disputes using an online platform is not necessarily a new concept. Section four of the proposal, Examples of ODR in Action, presents eleven examples of companies and institutions already using an ODR system to illustrate this point. Two of the examples cited include eBay and the Canadian Civil Resolution Tribunal. eBay resolves 60 million disagreements between buyers and sellers on their website every year using an ODR. eBay’s ODR uses a similar tiered system in which complaints are first assessed for merit, then negotiation is encouraged, and lastly, the complaint moves onto either eBay’s resolution service or to a third party service. Similarly, the Civil Resolution Tribunal of British Columbia, Canada, is an online tribunal that serves as an alternate method of resolving small-claim civil cases. This multistage tribunal, much like HM Online Court, was established with the intention of providing a process that was convenient, expedited, and less costly.

HM Online Court would move low-claim civil cases out of the courtroom and onto a digital platform. Professor Susskind claims that this system has the potential to resolve tens of thousands of cases per year, all the while providing a platform that significantly reduces the cost for parties involved and taxpayers. Users would not need to shell out money for legal fees incurred by hiring an attorney. Furthermore, the first tier would be designed to provides users with free information in order to avoid carrying on the dispute altogether. Though just submitted, the ODR proposal has been met with a positive response. During its drafting process it gained the support of Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls and head of the civil judiciary. In an interview with the Law Society Gazette he said: ‘The Civil Justice Council is always interested in exploring ways for improving the civil justice system and making it more accessible. ODR certainly offers opportunities for doing this, and we await the report of Richard Susskind’s group with great interest.”

Granted, the Civil Justice Council submitted this ODR report early February, and has yet to be circulated widely. It will be interesting to see how those in the legal profession and the public at large receive this report, and what steps are eventually taken towards it implementation.

Adia Sykes is a third-year undergraduate in the College studying Anthropology and Spanish.