TLEF says new online courts ‘must take into account user expectations in post-Amazon world’.

The Legal Education Foundation welcomes the proposals in Lord Justice Briggs’ Civil Courts Structure Review for legal disputes over money to be settled online, with no need to attend court.

However, TLEF – a grant-giving charity supporting public legal education and access to justice – warns that the service delivered by online courts must be in step with today’s consumer digital expectations.

TLEF fears that the current 30-week target for resolving disputes already proves to be unacceptably slow to a public conditioned to expect online services to deliver quick results.

TLEF report author Roger Smith says:

“The courts have to take their place in a world where, in sales transactions, user expectations are set by Amazon’s next day delivery service.” (page 16)

Roger Smith suggests a target of 15 weeks to resolve routine small claims (of under £25,000) should be the starting point and the court procedure engineered to meet this timetable at an acceptable cost for litigants.

TLEF believe greater use of IT in courts will reduce fees and increase access to justice.

Roger Smith says in the report:

“We suspect that the rapidly declining numbers using the small claims procedure and the employment tribunal illustrates the effect of increased fees.”

While Lord Justice Briggs refers to the importance of preserving a ‘justice brand’, TLEF’s report goes further, calling for access to courts at ‘proportionate cost’ to be ‘seen as, effectively, a constitutional right’.

Other key TLEF recommendations include:

  • ‘Court classes’ to teach groups of people how to use the online service, as used successfully in parts of California (page 18).
  • Decisions to be made by a named and independent judge. ‘Adjudication is a judicial function which may not be properly delegated to someone without the independence to be expected of a judge. It would surely not be proper for a member of the Ministry of Justice Staff to decide disputes.’ (page 15)
  • The small claims court should not be labeled ‘the online court’, or created as a ‘functionally separate online court’ (page 5). Online procedures ultimately ‘should extend throughout all courts’ not just to small claims (page 19). ‘Courts that ignore technology will seem increasingly remote from the everyday experience – and expectations – of their users.’ (page 4)
  • A key role for national independent advice agencies, like Citizens Advice – with their websites linking to the online court to give easy access. (page 10)
  • Study the experience of other countries operating similar online courts, such as British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal, which covers small claims and a limited class of housing disputes.
  • Scheme to be piloted, rather introduced in a ‘big bang’. ‘It cannot yet be assumed that sufficient numbers of people can deal with online procedures (page 8).’ TLEF’s own research suggests the proportion of those willing to use online court services may be as low as 50 per cent (page 14). It suggests offering reduced fees online, as an incentive to use the new service (page 15).
  • Online courts to include payment arrangements for those who do not have credit or debit cards. (page 11)
  • Online courts could be used for a wider range of cases than those suggested in the Briggs’ report (disputes involving sums up to £25,000), and could include uncontested divorce. ‘The approach of the civil and family courts to the introduction of online procedures should proceed together. The IT considerations are the same’ (page 13).
  • Consideration of whether online courts should be mobile phone compatible (page 11).

For more information, contact: Roger Smith 07785 781030; rogerjgsmith@gmail.com

Notes for editors

  1. Lord Justice Briggs’ interim report, Civil Courts Structure Review, was published in December 2015 by the judiciary of England and Wales.
  2. The origins of The Legal Education Foundation date back to 1870s, but it has existed in its current guise since 2012. TLEF’s charitable purpose is ‘to promote the advancement of legal education and the study of law in all its branches’. It takes a particular interest in the use of IT to increase access to justice.
  3. Prof Roger Smith OBE is a solicitor and researcher, and noted commentator on justice issues. www.rogersmith.info
  4. Copies of TLEF’s response to the Briggs report are available here

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