Sir Terence Etherton, Master of the Rolls, laid out the plans and rationale for the new Online Solutions Court at the Lord Slynn Memorial Lecture on 14th June.
This forms a core component of the digitisation of the judicial system, both processes and administration, and is part of a six-year plan of investment to modernise the court estate, including the IT.
Common portal for litigants in person
Rather than simply move the current system online, the intention is to redesign the processes and administration to create a system which brings together civil, family and tribunal claims into a common online portal, designed for litigants in person who do not know, nor will they need to know the procedural rules.
The intention is to also set up a new online procedure rules committee to make common rules for those three jurisdictions. The establishment of the new committee will form part of the primary legislation required to set up the Online Solutions Court.
This was due to be part of the Prisons and Courts Bill 2017, which fell due to the general election. Sir Terence hopes it will form part of the new government’s programme.
Embedding problem solving
The Online Solutions Court will be a break from the traditional court process in that it will formally incorporate problem solving into the process, as part of the three-tier process.
1. The pre-issue stage of litigation
This stage will cover some of the same ground as the pre-action protocols, but will go wider to help litigants in person find the right sources of legal advice that they will need to decide the best course of action. The intention is that more claimants will therefore avoid legal action.
If it is a dispute, the claim process, and all relevant documents, will be submitted online, although there will also be telephone support and case officers. The online portal will take the claimant through the rules step-by-step, so that detailed knowledge of the rules is not required.
Some areas within court rooms will be redesigned to create areas for individuals to access the justice system digitally. This will be possible as fewer traditional courtrooms will be required.
2. Formal incorporation of alternate dispute resolution
The case officers will actively engage parties in facilitating dispute resolution, whether by mediation, early neutral evaluation (ENE) or a new online ADR which will be set up as part of the new online court system.
3. Claim adjudicated by a judge
The claim may be heard by a judge by video link, by phone or by the papers. The resulting judgment will still be subject to appeal and, if necessary, enforcement.
Sir Terence was clear that solicitors and barristers will continue to make a valuable contribution, both with early advice on the merits of the claim and preparing a defence and resolving the dispute.
Much work has already been completed with the CE-File online claims filing for the Rolls Building, so that claims can be made online anywhere in the world at any time. This is proving to be a vital component of the drive of the Business and Property Courts of England and Wales to stave off competition from other global centres such as New York and Singapore.
There is also a pilot underway of a civil money claims project for claims below £10,000.
Sir Terence concludes that this complete overhaul of how justice is delivered is essential to move us forward into the 21st century. The purpose is to design a system which will be more accessible for all users, help prevent disputes escalate and provide effective online adjudication where needed, countering the impact of the closure of many traditional courts.