Small claims – there’s an app for that

The Legal Education Foundation (TLEF) has responded to Lord Justice Brigg’s interim report on online courts by suggesting that digital courts be made mobile phone compatible, to keep up with the public’s expectations for easy access and speedy service.

Report author, Roger Smith, stated that ‘courts have to take their place in a world where, in sales transactions, user expectations are set by Amazon’s next day delivery service’. Smith also warned that for consumers in the ‘post-Amazon world’, the current 30 week target for resolving disputes is unacceptably slow for a society conditioned to expect fast results and suggested that the court procedure ought to be engineered to meet a 15 week timetable.

Since the introduction of the idea of online dispute resolution by Professor Susskind, IT advisor to the Lord Chief Justice and chair of the advisory group to the Civil Justice Council, support for online courts has grown. Following publication of the Civil Justice Council report recommending ODR in February 2015, which made the headlines as an eBay-inspired scheme, Lord Justice Briggs has concluded that there is a ‘clear and pressing need’ for online courts, which would avoid litigants having to ‘incur the disproportionate cost of using lawyers’.

Tasked with reducing the costs of the civil courts, Briggs LJ has called for an urgent overhaul of the civil justice system in his review. Online courts would provide a solution whereby litigants would submit documents online and use the telephone, video or face-to-face meetings depending on the needs of the case for claims of up to £25,000. Given that small claims make up 70% of hearings in civil courts in England and Wales, this would significantly reduce the burden on the courts.

TLEF, a charity that aims to promote the advancement of legal education with a particular interest in the use of IT in increasing access to justice, welcomes plans for online courts, which it believes will improve access to justice by making dispute resolution more affordable.  In response to an invitation for comments on the interim report, which poses a number of questions and is expected to be finalised in July 2016, TLEF has made a number of recommendations (here).

Whilst the Civil Court Structure Review interim report envisions an online court as a separate entity with a bespoke set of rules (as opposed to being an extension of the County Court governed by the CPR), TLEF has suggested that the online court should not be ‘functionally separate’, but rather have procedures that extend throughout all the courts. Online court should not, in fact, be limited to small claims, but could be extended to cover non-contentious divorces, as ‘the IT considerations are the same’.

Contrary to the suggestion in Briggs LJ’s report that judges’ workload be reduced by transferring ‘routine and non-contentious work’ to case officers, TLEF has called adjudication a ‘judicial function which may not be properly delegated and recommended that MOJ staff not be given this responsibility.

While political support for ODR may be growing, TLEF statistics on public enthusiasm for the idea suggests that uptake of the scheme may be slow. TLEF’s research suggests that the proportion of people willing and equipped to use online court services may be as low as 50%, in contrast to previously quoted statistics from the Oxford Internet Institute, which claimed that 22% of the British population described as ‘non-users’ of the internet ‘only a small fraction of these non-users ‘definitely’ have no one who could assist them’.


As a result, TLEF has suggested that lower fees for those using online court services be used to incentivise the scheme, which should be piloted rather than being introduced as a ‘big bang’. ‘Court classes’ could also be used to educate the public on how to use the online services and national advice agencies, such as Citizens Advice, would play a key role in directing people to the service.


Law Society president, Jonathan Smithers, responded sceptically to the idea that online court would negate the need for lawyers and that people would be able to navigate the system alone or with limited assistance. He stated that there will still be a role for solicitors to play, as ‘while the online court may not require advocacy, there will still be a need for legal advice to ensure that everyone, including the vulnerable, can access justice’.

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