This blog post written by Dr Sue Prince, University of Exeter is an abridged version of paper delivered at the ADR Research Network Roundtable held from 4-5 December 2017 in Dunedin, New Zealand.
The court as an imposing building exists as a symbol of the ideal of justice: the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey in London has Lady Justice standing on the top of its dome, demonstrating the vital importance of the rule of law. Yet the symbolism of the local court as a fixture of the community no longer holds true. Certainly, in the civil courts there are many unresolved problems with the numbers of litigants-in-person who cannot afford legal support. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 gave rise to so many litigants-in-person that judges had to reconsider their approaches and become more inquisitorial in approach and less adversarial.
The County Courts Act 1846, which established the county courts, came into force with the idea that courts should be cheaper and more accessible. In 1847, following the introduction of the statute, there were 491 courts in England and Wales. Now, 170 years later, the estate has diminished to 173 county court buildings. Civil courts are no longer so easily accessible and rarely occupy a place centrally in the community as they did in the past. Yet, the number of cases going to trial has also diminished and the number of alternative dispute resolution processes has increased: ombudsman and unregulated providers. As processes change so does their role. The building is no longer physically accessible but nor is it financially accessible to most, due to the lack of legal aid and increases in court fees that have been introduced by successive government policies. The system is no longer fit for purpose.
So, is it possible then to design an alternative system for small, low value cases using online tools that might operate to support court users through the legal system in a way that the system in operation in the court building never could? This was a question asked of a group of us who formed the Civil Justice Council Online Dispute Resolution Advisory Group a couple of years ago. We recommended the creation of an online court with online judges and online facilitators or mediators as well as an initial stage offering online information and help. Such changes were supported by the Master of the Rolls, John Dyson LJ, who described our report as a catalyst for far-reaching reforms. As a potential solution to similar problems described above, online courts are being contemplated in various forms across the world.
In British Columbia, Canada, for example, the new online small claims process has replaced the court building with an end-to-end process which provides legal advice and direction, mediation and the potential for an online judge. In the UK, plans are now afoot for cases under £25,000 to be referred to an ‘Online Solutions Court’ which will integrate three distinct stages of justice. In our ODR Report, we said that ODR was not science fiction. It proved that this was the case because the UK Government committed £700M to fully digitalise the courts, and to reform the legal system. Currently, HMCTS in the UK is embarking on the most ambitious programme of reform which embodies the ‘Online Solutions Court’ and other agile, digital by default reforms, currently in beta testing phase but soon to be launched across England and Wales.
Online dispute resolution has many of the qualities offered by ADR. Designers of current ODR systems tend to focus on the needs of the user and to facilitate these needs through the creation of pathways along which a litigant will travel, answering questions to personalise the experience, and to help specify the sort of actions required to meet the challenges of the legal system. As with ADR, ODR attempts to facilitate and empower, albeit not through face-to-face processes. ODR has the potential to offer a different service: a series of pathways and gateways through the legal system, with the opportunity for the user to ask questions, or to have terms defined as they arise. In England and Wales, the proposal is for a facilitator to attempt to mediate the dispute before it goes before an online judge. Yet, the system itself exists as a form of ADR, because the technology operates as a form of ‘fourth estate’ to enable resolution where possible, or provide information along the way. The very idea of introducing ODR precipitates a debate on many aspects of what the online court looks like; how it meets the demands of the rule of law, and what needs to change to give better access to justice. The role of public legal education and assistance become vitally important in a system which is not designed around the assumption of legal representation. The architecture of dispute resolution is not impeded by the introduction of ODR but instead it offers an opportunity to re-examine the court process and to see that what happens outside the building is as important, if not more important, as in the hearing room itself.