Legal experts call for English 'online court' to handle low-value civil court cases

Out-Law News | 17 Feb 2015 | 12:23 pm | 2 min. read

An online mechanism should be set up to handle low-value civil court cases, with judges removed entirely from the process for the simplest cases, according to a new report.

The new online dispute resolution (ODR) system could be up and running by 2017 and operate alongside the traditional court system according to the report, which was produced by a working group set up by the independent Civil Justice Council (CDC). The report sets out examples of similar systems already in operation across the world, including those run by online retailer eBay and the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS).

CJC chair Lord Dyson, who as Master of the Rolls is the third most senior judge in England and Wales, described the report as "important and timely".

"There is no doubt that ODR has enormous potential for meeting the needs  of the system and its users in the 21st century," he said. "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."

The new system, to be known as HM Online Court (HMOC), would be operated by the existing HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and be made available in cases with £25,000 or less in dispute, according to the report. It could also be extended to "suitable family disputes" and "appropriate cases that come before today's tribunals", the working group said. Developing the new service would cost "a modest fraction" of the £75 million HMCTS has available for reform projects over the next five years, the report said.

The report proposes a three-tier dispute resolution system, with greater involvement from non-judicial "facilitators" to encourage resolution at an earlier stage. An initial 'online evaluation' would help users in dispute classify their problem, gain greater awareness of their rights and obligations and understand potential options and remedies. This would be followed by 'online facilitation', during which trained facilitators could help parties through mediation and negotiation online and by telephone conferencing where necessary. This stage could also involve some automated negotiation. Tier three could then provide access to judges who would decide on cases online and, again, by telephone where necessary.

Professor Richard Susskind, the report's main author, said that he expected most disputes to be resolved "at the first two stages without a judge becoming involved".

"This report is not suggesting improvements to the existing system," he said. "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."

Among the examples highlighted by the report include eBay's ODR system, through which over 60 million disagreements are resolved every year; and national systems in Holland and Canada. The report also highlights the work of the UK FOS, which resolves over 500,000 disputes between consumers and UK-based financial services firms each year; and a new web-based system recently launched by the Traffic Penalty Tribunal of England and Wales.

Currently, less complex cases can be resolved through the civil court system's small claims track, which is available in cases usually worth up to £10,000. According to the report, the proposed HMOC would provide those bringing these cases with a less daunting, more user-friendly means of resolving disputes, particularly those bringing cases on their own as 'litigants in person'.

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