I attended ‘The Case for Online Courts’ talk at UCL, on Thursday, 16th February by lecturer Professor Richard Susskind OBE, who is also IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice and President of the Society for Computers and Law.
His speech preceded a Q & A by a panel of supporters with expertise in the current court system. Susskind discussed a court service, that can be defined as: ‘a state provided dispute resolution service where parties do not need to congregate physically’, which would be ‘affordable, quick, intelligible and proportionate’. As opposed to today’s current setup, which he described as ‘too costly, slow, unintelligible and inaccessible’ for many.
Starting small, with a development as instrumental as this, is key. This means dealing only with cases under the £25,000 threshold. Lord Justice Briggs, in his 2016 report on ‘Civil Courts Structure’, had advised to begin lower and focus on claims under £10,000. In addition, Susskind made it clear what not to expect from the online courts system, such as, artificial life or robotic judges. In fact, qualified lawyers and judges would be at the forefront to a proposed three tier system. The first stage would be judges deciding what cases are fitting for online court, before the second stage of facilitation and the third, evaluation. Maybe most importantly, he understood this system would not be suitable for all cases.
Some concerns about this change: the aim is to be more accessible, yet there are many, if not most, in the older generation who have limited knowledge when it comes to any online process, my Grandma included. To this, Susskind referred to a recently introduced government scheme known as ‘Assisted Digital’ and made the logical point that it would not seem reasonable to ‘lag because of the 4%’. But who are we lagging behind?
To name two countries that already have digitised legal services, Uganda and China. The Ugandans have created an app called ‘Barefoot Law’ that provides citizens with free legal advice. China’s service, ‘Fabao’, already caters to 12 million users who are able to access legal advice by telephone. Think call centres and qualified lawyers.
However, Robert Bourns, one of the panel speakers and President of the Law Society, made the relevant point that being digitally literate does not mean you are legally literate. Does this therefore mean, that moving to an online system will not solve the existing problem of the everyday man and woman who feels out of depth with the law?
Susskind would contend that efforts are being made to simplify the process and this includes translating legal language into better understood terms. Panellist Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, understands it as ‘thinking differently about the delivery of justice itself’.
It has been contested that this is no more than a public sector IT project. One lacking in majesty and emotion, that can only be felt in a court room setting. But is this argument merely superficial? Susskind believes we need to ‘take off the legal spectacles’ and face the reality of what should be considered a priority. For example, it may not be an indispensable feature of the court service to see a judge face to face. Panellist Sir Ernest Ryder, who holds the position of Senior President of Tribunals, regards the online system as an aid to protect against unconscious biases that individuals might have to deal with in person. Furthermore, technology is growing and improving, so this is just the next culturally natural step, and Lord Dyson sees it as an ‘exciting milestone in history’. As a last resort, there is the ‘better than nothing argument’. This is to say that, if nothing else, at least this would be an upgrade compared to the present system.
Want to know more about the online court? Watch the UCL panel discussion in full.
For further reading about this topic, see the resources recommended by Susskind himself:
‘Digital Justice’ by Ethan Katsh and Orna Rabinovich-Einy
‘The New Handshake: Online Dispute Resolution and the Future of Online Dispute Resolution‘ by Amy J. Shmitz and Colin Rule (focuses on consumer disputes)
Thanks to Oluwakemi Onile-Ere, LLB1 for this extremely useful review of Susskind’s lecture.