The employment tribunals are set to host the pilot of an end-to-end online service through which cases would be run, the president of tribunals has revealed.
Sir Ernest Ryder also said that machine learning could be introduced to assist judges in tribunals.
Wrapping up this week’s International Online Court Forum in London, Sir Ernest highlighted three projects he was involved in.
The first was “continuous online resolution” in the social security tribunal, involving “asynchronous” online conversations between the judge and the parties.
He explained: “We will use this to identify issues, signpost agreements and settlement opportunities wherever possible, without the seriously disabled user having to travel to a court building if we can avoid it, and ultimately to make a decision online where that is possible and appropriate.”
Face-to-face hearings will still take place but HM Courts & Tribunals Service is introducing online recording of all process and hearings “to improve transparency”.
Sir Ernest said they were also “very interested in the behavioural aspects” of online questioning. “We must test what we are doing to see what works.”
The second project was a new online asylum process, which like continuous online resolution would need new rules and practice directions.
The new process will see all the evidence gathered at the beginning of the case. Case officers will instruct parties to identify issues, upload evidence and prepare electronic bundles.
“That is how we will help disenfranchised people to put their best case forward,” Sir Ernest said. “The ability of asylum seekers to take part out of country will finally be realised and [there will be] a significantly simplified and streamlined process so that when the judge gets the case, he will be ready for a decision, not an adjournment.
“The lawyer’s role will be enhanced, frontloaded and therefore potentially paid at an earlier stage.”
The third project was “a complex party-party environment that will bring all of these elements together”, he continued.
This meant an end-to-end process, online resolution, video hearings of the kind trialled in the tax tribunal both for case management and simpler issues, and sophisticated booking arrangements for judges, hearing rooms and cases.
The judge said: “We may well trial the employment tribunal first, not least because it has mandatory conciliation processes through ACAS as its first stage, and the availability of judge mediation before cases are listed for a contested hearing. Settlement opportunities will be a key objective.”
HMCTS has close links with organisations investigating the ethical issues surround artificial intelligence, and Sir Ernest said: “I don’t rule out the use of machine learning to help judges identify issues, the most relevant and up-to-date authorities, and even the tracking of cases into types.”
More broadly, he stressed the importance of introducing new processes that put court and tribunal users at the heart of the system.
“Our principles are vital but our processes do not need to be as old as those principles… Our rules and processes have to be intelligible and useable if they are not to be the exclusive playground of the rich.”
He emphasised the importance of pilots and full evaluations, as well as research into behavioural issues, such as unconscious bias.
Some of the online courts in other countries discussed at the conference – and the outline of the online court recommended by Lord Justice Briggs – have three stages of problem solving, Sir Ernest noted: dispute avoidance, by helping parties understand their rights and responsibilities at the start, dispute containment – that is, forms of settlement and conciliation – and ultimately dispute resolution
“If we build these into our processes, we will help to humanise justice,” he said. “Our users do not find the courts’ 10-4 existence in our buildings anything other than forbidding, if not threatening, and certainly grossly inconvenient.”
“We are embracing change because it is a statutory obligation and we need to do it for our users – to provide swift, specialist, innovation justice that is informal and flexible.”