Government and judges urge lawyers to innovate as era of online justice and fixed fees approaches
Lord Thomas: joint vision
Lawyers need to embrace innovation to find new ways of delivering services and simplifying working practices, the government and senior judiciary said today as they unveiled their vision for the digital transformation of the justice system.
At the same time, they said people should be helped to resolve disputes “without needing expensive legal representation to help them understand what to do”.
The £1bn plan includes the prospect of people being convicted online for minor offences, and plans for fixed fees across as much of the civil system as possible. It also looks to develop Lord Justice Briggs’ recommendation for an online court.
The joint statement by Lord Chancellor Liz Truss, Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas and the Senior President of Tribunals, acknowledged that the proposed reforms would have “a major impact on the work of many judges, magistrates and lawyers”.
It emphasised that the system needed to work better not just for professionals but also for ordinary people. “For lawyers especially, innovation will be invaluable: to find new ways of delivering services, of simplifying working practices, of focusing more on meeting the needs of all their clients, from defendants to families and civil claimants.
“Much is already being done by the legal professions, but the reforms will enable them to be much more ambitious. We are confident that they share our commitment to working together to shape a modern court system that will be a significant contribution to building a more just society.”
The statement said the reforms were based on three core principles – that the system must be just, proportionate and accessible.
On the second of those strands it said: “We must make sure that the justice system is proportionate in order to save people time, shrink their costs, and reduce the impact of legal proceedings on their lives. Justice delayed is justice denied.
“Low-value cases or those of modest social significance should be dealt with quickly. Victims of crime and vulnerable witnesses should be supported by clear and effective processes. Unnecessary escalation of disputes should be emphatically discouraged and kept out of court wherever possible.”
The statement said that over time, the work of the courts and tribunals would use online, virtual and traditional hearings as best meets the circumstances of the case.
“As new technologies bed down, we anticipate that more and more cases or parts of cases will be carried out virtually or online. In certain circumstances, of course, justice will require that parties, their advisers and judges conduct hearings in physical courtrooms. Meanwhile, those who use our courts and tribunals – including legal professionals – should expect two significant developments.
“The first is our aim for all cases to be started online, whether or not they are scheduled for the traditional system or for online resolution. The second will be the completion of some cases entirely online, which will be much more convenient for everyone involved.
“Suitable cases – initially lower-value debt and damages claims and appeals to the Social Security and Child Support Tribunal – will be able to be managed through affordable and simple online services, specifically designed to meet user needs.”
This will be supported by a “new, highly simplified procedural code” and an emphasis on promoting more conciliatory approaches to dispute resolution. It should be “understandable to non-lawyers, helping ordinary people resolve their issues in a low-key way, without needing expensive legal representation to help them understand what to do”.
Though the direction of travel across all courts and tribunals was ‘digital by default’, the statement committed to providing support for those who could not access services digitally, or who need help to do so.
In the criminal courts, those facing summary non-imprisonable offences where there is no clear identifiable victim – such as rail ticket and TV licence evasion, speeding, insurance and fly-tipping – will be able to plead online, with an early version of this for traffic offences already being rolled out nationally.
“In certain cases, we are proposing an even simpler process where defendants can resolve their cases immediately using an entirely automated system. This would mean when someone admits certain minor offences and chooses to opt in to an automated system, that system will provide an online conviction and issue a standard fixed fine and costs.
“This will enable defendants to complete their case and pay the penalty instantaneously, without having to attend court – a just, efficient and simple improvement. Removing the need for full hearings in this way also frees up magistrates to spend their valuable time considering the cases that need their attention most.”
For the civil courts, the statement said: “We will automate and digitise the entire process of civil money claims by 2020. These account for more than four fifths of the 1.6 million claims issued in the county courts and the High Court each year – with the vast majority (83%) of which are uncontested.
“We will speed up resolution as we replace paper and post with digital working: currently, a ‘fast track’ claim with a value between £10,000 and £25,000 takes 11 months to be resolved. Under our new digital model, cases will be handled faster and in a more convenient way, improving the experience for everyone making and defending claims in the civil courts.
“More needs to be done to control the costs of civil cases so they are proportionate to the case, and legal costs are more certain from the start. Building on earlier reforms, we will look at options to extend fixed recoverable costs much more widely, so the costs of going to court will be clearer and more appropriate. Our aim is that losing parties should not be hit with disproportionately high legal costs, and people will be able to make more informed decisions on whether to take or defend legal action.”
In an accompanying consultation paper, the Ministry of Justice added: “We are keen to extend the fixed recoverable costs regime to as many civil cases as possible. The senior judiciary will be developing proposals on which we will then consult.”
The statement also committed to simplifying the divorce and probate processes for uncontested cases.
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