Justice online: Just as good?

Technology has revolutionised the way in which a plethora of bodies function. More often than not, this has been a success following careful consideration. Is taking the Courts online a step too far though? Joshua Rozenberg QC (Hon) discussed the current state of play in relation to modernising the courts and ultimately justice, at the Justice Online: Just as good? event, held by Gresham College earlier this week 

It is estimated that by the year 2022, a predominant number of civil disputes in England and Wales will be resolved through an ‘online court.’ It must be noted that the introduction of such a system will inevitably bring about complexities and whether certain difficulties can be overcome, is uncertain until full implementation occurs. Rozenberg noted that such evolution in the justice system has been a long time coming. The idea for such reforms were initially raised by Lord Woolf as Lord Chief Justice back in 2000 to 2005, whereby Woolf pushed for court officials to introduce technology in the civil courts as part of his civil justice reforms. Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful and a massive amount of time and money was wasted as the work was never completed due to lack of funding.

Yes…this much paper!

In November 2016, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd defined the intended results of a technical reform. Namely, the digitization of all hearings and simplification of court procedures and general modernisation of buildings. Rosenberg commented that such reform would be a huge leap forward given that there would no longer be a need for a court building, as hearings could occur through a smartphone app from the comfort of your own home.

One way in which the Crown Courts have already began to modernise the way in which they conduct themselves is through the introduction of the Crown Court digital case system. Here, files relating to a case may be uploaded and permanently stored in a secure place using a laptop. Rozenberg discovered that since the introduction of the digital case system last year, several million pages of paper have been saved by storing the files online, as oppose to having a hardcopy. Had these documents been on paper, they would have reached height of the Burj Khalifa – The worlds tallest building! 

There is strong evidence that having at least part of the legal process in an online system has many advantages. Firstly, this would mean more efficient access to documents which would ultimately be more convenient in a court. Furthermore, the idea of having everyone in the court room with the same document visually will help in ensuring justice is served best. In addition to this, online courts would significantly reduce costs for civil disputes, ultimately meaning that justice would be available on a more extensive scale than it is at the moment as courts can be very costly.  

Rozenberg however, went onto discuss possible contradictions to this notion of justice being more accessible to all. The introduction of online courts may produce the opposite effect as claimants and defendants may have issues using the new legal technology. As a result, this may mean unjust judgments in cases. Furthermore, the absence of a court room and a physical judge and jury may well reduce accountability.

Who would be responsible for miscarriages of justice in the event of a computer deciding the outcome of a case? 

Rozenberg addressed the impact of this move to technology by focusing in on the criminal courts of England and Wales. Governments proposals would allow people to be convicted and punished by a computer. This would save the stigma associated with attending court. However it is not known whether a defendant who pleads guilty through the online court system would receive a less harsh punishment than if they were to do so in court. Take a look at the Prison and Courts Bill (HC Bill 145) Part 2 to see these proposals.

Whether an online court would be an advancement in the legal world is unknown as of yet. The use of technology such as video links in courts has proven to be a success as it allows claimants in cases of a sensitive nature, such as rape, to provide evidence without being present in a courtroom. An online court on this scale does not yet exist anywhere in the world. And so, we must ask the question; is this a new beginning for justice and law or will it do more bad than good. Rozenberg will be monitoring the development of an online court and shall be back at Gresham College to offer a lecture in a year and two years time respectively.               

Want to find out more on this subject?  

Joshua  Rozenberg’s book is out now: The Online Court: Will IT work?

Take a look at the video of a UCL lecture/panel discussion on the same topic: The Case for Online Courts – featuring Professor Richard Susskind, The Rt Honourable Sir Ernest Ryder (Senior President of Tribunals), Susan Acland-Hood (Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service), Andrew Langdon QC (Chairman of the Bar) and Robert Bourns (President of the Law Society). This was chaired by Professor Dame Hazel Genn DBE QC.

Many thanks to Hira Abid, a City Law School alumni for this very insightful event review.

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