There has been criticism from many quarters about the recent rise in court fees, with concerns that they will prevent access to justice. An alternative court system being considered by the Ministry of Justice looks set to redress that.

The Civil Justice Council (CJC) set up an advisory group to look at the possibility of setting up a system to provide online dispute resolution (ODR) for lower value civil claims.

The group recently published their report and recommendations, and it makes for interesting reading. You can download the full report from their website.

The rationale

The reason behind this proposal is to provide greater access to justice for lower value civil claims, which they determine as claims below £25,000. This does cover a large proportion of civil money claims (when announcing the court fee rises in March 2015, the MoJ stated that 90% of claims are for £10,000 or less).

The group states that the current system is too costly, too slow and too complex, especially for litigants in person. Their proposal is a new internet-based online court service, called Her Majesty’s Online Court or HMOC. They state that this is not a case of computerising the existing system, but rather starting fresh and designing a pure internet-based approach.

Their expectation is that the system will launch in 2017.

Who else is doing it?

The report states many examples of the internet being used to resolve disputes, notably eBay, where around 60 million disputes between traders are addressed each year. Canada and the Netherlands are already looking at launching an ODR court system, with Canada launching in British Columbia in summer 2015.

The good news for the tax payer is that, because ODR is already widespread, there are existing software platforms available and the cost would be covered by court fees – which are also expected to be lower than the conventional court fees.

How will it work?

They propose a three tier system, with the aim of resolving disputes as quickly as possible, but with a clear escalation process, if required.

Tier One - online evaluation

  • To help users with a grievance classify and categorize their problem, be aware of their rights and obligations, and understand the options and remedies available to them.

Tier Two - online facilitation

  • To bring a dispute to a speedy, fair conclusion via online facilitators, without the involvement of judges
  • Communicating via the Internet and telephone conferencing, facilitators will review papers and statements and help parties through mediation and negotiation
  • There will also be some automated negotiation to help parties resolve differences without the intervention of human experts

Tier Three - online judges

  • Full-time and part-time members of the Judiciary who will decide suitable cases or parts of cases on an online (or teleconferencing) basis, largely on the basis of papers submitted to them electronically as part of a structured process of online pleading

HMOC’s mission

The mission of HMOC will be to provide a court-based dispute resolution service for low value claims that is:

  • Affordable
  • Accessible
  • Intelligible
  • Appropriate
  • Speedy
  • Consistent
  • Trustworthy
  • Focused
  • Avoidable
  • Proportionate
  • Fair
  • Robust
  • Final

The CJC advisory group believes that, even though HMCTS has first-rate judges, the current system for resolving low value civil cases does not meet the majority of these criteria.

Can it work?

It should certainly help claimants go through the process more easily and, if set up and functioning correctly, relieve pressure on the current court system, which is creaking at the seams. However, putting it in place will not be without its challenges, as can be seen from existing ODR systems such as eBay, which is not without issues.

So, it sounds good in principle, but the real acid test will be how well it is designed and implemented: it will be interesting to see how the BC pilot in Canada works out.

David Asker

David is an authorised High Court Enforcement Officer and our Director of Corporate Governance

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