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Partner and Head of Family Law, Rugby
Resorting to the Courts to settle disputes is most people’s idea of a nightmare. The hassle, the expense, the stress… and all without any guarantee you’ll get the outcome you hope for. The news, then, that a special advisory group has proposed changes to the litigation process by moving it online might come as a welcome overhaul of our conservative justice system.
The report, Online Dispute Resolution – For Low Value Civil Claims, sets out proposals for the introduction of an Online Dispute Resolution (“ODR”) scheme. The scheme would aim to settle disputes out of Court, using arbitration methods similar to those adopted by online auction giant, eBay, which settles around 60 million disputes each year.
The ODR portal would comprise a three-tier structure which would be managed as one coherent system accessible on the same platform. The first tier’s purpose will be to help users evaluate their problems and to categorise their difficulties, free of charge. If problems are not resolved at this stage, the case would move to the second tier. The second tier would exist to help mediate cases between parties and encourage them to negotiate through an online facilitator. Users of the second tier will incur a Court fee.
Whilst the hope is that most disputes will be resolved by either of the previous stages, should the dispute progress the third tier would function as a dispute resolution service where Judges would determine outcomes based largely on papers received electronically (i.e. without advocates or trials). All online decisions by online Judges will be as binding and enforceable as those made in traditional Court rooms.
With the announcement that Court Fees in England and Wales are set to rise again, and with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service becoming ever busier, I can see the initial attraction of moving the service online and stepping into the 21st Century. My concern lies, however, in the proposal of a faceless justice system. Advocates, trials and traditional Court procedures have a place in modern judicial interpretation of cases before the Courts. I find the proposals somewhat disconcerting on that basis; the thought of eBay being a role model for the way a legal system should operate, even more so!
Whilst I am no technophobe, I fear how robust this system will be and the costs associated with building it. The very nature of the online system opens the service up to bogus scan sites and fake automated claims, putting users at risk.
Though it might be hard to believe, in 2015, not everyone is computer literate. Does this mean those without knowledge or access are going to be denied access to the legal system? Will only those who express themselves well in writing be successful in their claims?
Further consideration and consultation is clearly required. My view is that this online system should not be introduced rashly, but available as an option for the more ‘tech savvy’ to use, if that’s their preference. While this may result in the take up being low, perhaps this would be an indication of Court users’ views on such a proposed system.
We will have to wait and observe what further proposals may flow.
If you would like to speak to somebody about a dispute you may have contact our team today.