The first signs of an online court (OC) will be visible in tribunals by September, online processes will be extended to a wide range of civil court proceedings by May 2020, and the reforms will be incremental, according to one of the judges in charge.
Speaking at a conference organised by UCL faculty of laws in London this week, Sir Ernest Ryder, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Senior President of Tribunals, said the changes would all be “about improving access to justice”.
He said: “There will be no big bang. There will be… a gradual learning curve. Some things will not work and we should expect that, and there will not be ‘one size that fits all’….
“What is needed for a party-state jurisdiction like benefit appeals will not be the same as that which is needed for party-party jurisdictions like public law family, employment or property, but each will use some of the same… IT components [such as] a digital… portal to make your application.”
He added that among more than 100 components, all cases would also share systems to upload documents to the cloud, digital case management for judges and parties, and virtual hearings, such as Skype, video or telephone.
The first jurisdictions to adopt the online court would be the social security and child support tribunal, followed by immigration and asylum. After that, employment and specialist tribunals such as war pensions would be incorporated into the scheme, the judge said.
He insisted that “everything is being tested with users, including judges, and then piloted before being introduced”. Official advisory groups, “professional engagement groups”, and those advocating for litigant-in-person (LiPs) would be consulted.
A “common or core process” involving “plain language procedures with a new rules committee” would be developed for all civil, family, and tribunals jurisdictions.
Sir Ernest reported that a majority of his applicants were LiPs and most were vulnerable, including “a number… unable to access or use themselves an IT service”. Therefore, an “assisted digital service” would need to be “very real” and “you have to be able to default to telephone, face-to-face assistance, or paper if you need to do so”.
He added that there were plans to “integrate the tribunals judiciary with the courts judiciary”. This would resulted in improved “flexibility of deployment, diversity of recruitment, and career progression”.
Earlier at the conference, Professor Richard Susskind denied that objections to the OC such as that it was “economy class justice” or involved a “loss of majesty”, held water. But he had sympathy with those who feared it was “too ambitious”.
He said he wanted to move “slowly and cautiously” and that rather than the proposed value cap for claims of £25,000, he recommended starting with claims of a value well under £10,000. “You start at a modest level and you build up… it’s not just about value,” he advised. Research should be undertaken at every stage to measure effectiveness, he added.
Bar Council chairman, Andrew Langdon QC, told the conference that the OC risked “dumbing down” long-established legal concepts and losing an ancient tradition of face-to-face justice. Human interactions were essential to justice, he concluded.
Law Society president, Robert Bourns, said that solicitors were fully engaged in steps to reform the justice system. But he argued that “digital literacy” did not equate to “legal literacy”, and that vulnerable people often needed access to independent advice. Court closures, court fees, and costs recovery changes were affecting access to justice negatively.
Separately, speaking about artificial intelligence (AI) on the weekend, Professor Susskind expressed caution about the direction technology might take in future without clarity over what was considered acceptable, now that human cognitive capabilities were being overtaken.
He said that ‘affective computing’ – where machines can both express and detect emotions – was moving rapidly, so the question arose about how far it was desirable that human moral capacity should be impinged upon – the ability to recognise right and wrong and take responsibility.
Speaking on the BBC’s The World This Weekend, he asked: “Do we believe machines can recognise what’s right or wrong? [and] do we want our machines to take responsibility in the way that we as human beings do?
“Are we comfortable with the idea, for example, of a machine deciding to switch off a life support system, and doing so? Probably not… this raises a fundamental question of the moral limits of machines.”