Online Court?

As we can now order a taxi, a meal, do our banking and even catch a Pokémon from our phone, tablet or even a watch – is it time that the legal profession caught up?

According to Lord Justice Briggs’ final report published on 27 July 2016, soon you may be able to add undertaking Court proceedings to the list of tasks you can accomplish online.

The proposal for an online court is designed to put emphasis on allowing individuals and small businesses access to legal proceedings that may otherwise prove too costly.  There will continue to be a fee for issuing a claim, although the amount is yet to be determined.

Lord Briggs has emphasised that the aim of the online court is not to cut out lawyers, but to encourage potential claimants to seek legal advice early as to the merits of their case.  The online court would seemingly make it easier for parties to represent themselves, providing the ability to upload evidence and documents online.  For the less technology savvy this may prove more difficult than anticipated.

Clear information on what happens next in court proceedings

It is already possible to issue certain claims online, however, not to necessarily see them through a full court process.  In our experience this in itself can cause issues with parties not being clear on the next steps after they have sent their claim form into cyber space.

Whilst an online court may make proceedings more cost effective, any online system will have to be user friendly and provide users with clear information as to what happens next and what is required of them. Consideration will also have to be given to what will happen if the system crashes and parties miss important deadlines or are unable to access documents.

Issuing proceedings should remain a last resort

Whilst the proposals put forward provide some serious food for thought, it does not change the fact that issuing proceedings should remain a last resort. It is proposed that the online court would have a conciliation stage.  Whilst this seems worthwhile it would be after proceedings have already been issued.

At present solicitors, when instructed, will generally advise their clients to seek to settle the matter prior to the issue of proceedings.  If the online court is successful in opening up access to justice and in simplifying proceedings, it will surely follow that more claims will be issued without any involvement of a solicitor. If this early advice is removed there is a risk that the online court will become overstretched with spurious claims which previously may never been issued.

Whilst an intriguing proposal and one with many merits, an online court would require more free public legal education than is currently available.  Assistance would have to be provided to those without access to the internet or who struggle with technology. The costs of this will all need to be taken into account when considering how cost effective the online court would really be.