As well as considering the enforcement of a judgment, Lord Justice Briggs has also considered the introduction of an online court without lawyers within his interim report on the Civil Courts Structure Review.
The case for an online court
Lord Justice Briggs’s ambition is for an online court for use by creditors who don’t have lawyers (also known as litigants in person), which would be the compulsory starting point for money claims of up to £25,000, covering around 70% of current cases. However, Briggs LJ suggests that this limit may increase in time.
Briggs LJ states that the online court should be created “as a separate court, with dedicated software, staff, rules [designed from the outset to be understood by litigants without lawyers] and rule-making body”.
The aim is to increase access to justice by removing much of the cost associated with litigation, which is beyond the reach of many individuals and small businesses.
How the online court might work
The new court will be designed from the ground up to work without lawyers and will focus on more straightforward cases, leaving the current court system to deal with more complex cases where lawyers will almost certainly be instructed.
Whilst much of the process will be on line, there will also be the facility to use other means of communication where appropriate, and it is expected that there will be a telephone helpline.
Evidence, documents and issues will be captured online, and conciliation and case management will be handled by Case Officers, prior to a ruling by a judge. A trial would be considered a last resort.
Case Officers, widely used throughout the civil court system, are expected to take on more of the routine and non-contentious work currently undertaken by judges, thus freeing up judges’ time for those cases going to trial.
Naturally there will be lower legal costs, however we see this as more of a continuation of the existing increase in litigants in person that we have been seeing over the last few years. We think it likely that lawyers will be instructed on more complex and/or higher value matters, even if the upper limit rises above £25,000.
Due to the lower costs, creditors may decide to pursue claims through the online court that they may not have done under the current system. There could be a “trawl” through the aged debtor ledgers of many accounts departments! Collections departments may also find themselves busy if litigation moves in-house.
The trend towards litigants in person is already well under way, but we do find that mistakes are made, generally due to inexperience, which can negatively impact on enforcement.
A system designed specifically to be used without a lawyer should greatly assist litigants in person and make it easier for them to submit and manage a claim and avoid legal pitfalls along the way.
Our concerns remain that anything other than the most simple of claims should always be referred to a lawyer for expert advice.
Have your say
Lord Justice Briggs has invited comments in writing on the interim report by the end of February 2016, which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be responding to him in detail and encourage you to do so as well.
There will then be further consultation, prior to the final Review report, due by the end of July 2016.
David is the former CEO of The Sheriffs Office.