Online rule committee gears up for work – but where to begin?

Bellamy: Making digital courts a reality

The Online Procedure Rule Committee (OPRC) is finally up and running and due to meet this month – although the specific areas of litigation where it will initially focus are not yet known.

The OPRC will oversee the development of rules for online proceedings across the civil, family and tribunals jurisdictions, and also set optional data and behavioural standards for pre-action online dispute resolution services.

Where pre-action services choose to comply with the standards, users whose claims do not settle will be able to move into the HM Courts & Tribunals Service system seamlessly, without needing to start proceedings afresh, according to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials speaking at a Network for Justice meeting last week.

They said the ultimate aim was to provide “an end-to-end digital journey for users” and that setting standards should improve confidence in providers.

The OPRC, which meets for the first time on 26 June, has six members: chair Sir Geoffrey Vos, the Master of the Rolls; Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division; Sir Keith Lindblom, Senior President of Tribunals; Brett Dixon, former president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and until recently a member of the Civil Procedure Rule Committee; lay advice representative Sarah Stephens; and technology expert Gerard Boyers, who is director of digital strategy at Deloitte Digital.

The OPRC has its genesis in Lord Briggs’ 2016 civil court structure review but legislation to bring it into being in 2017 and then 2019 was lost because of general elections. It was eventually given statutory footing in the Judicial Review Courts Act 2022.

Its aims are to improve access to justice, particularly for individuals and litigants in person; greater efficiency in resolving disputes, including lower costs; greater transparency; and providing a justice system that can help uphold the rule of law in an increasingly technological society.

The 2022 Act provides that the OPRC can make rules for proceedings of a specified kind, which need to be laid out in regulations.

The MoJ and OPRC will need to decide where the committee will begin its work before drawing up the secondary legislation for approval by Parliament. This will happen in the next 12 months.

The rules, the Network for Justice event heard, “need to be simple and simply expressed”, and support “innovative methods of resolving disputes”.

Justice minister Lord Bellamy said: “It is vital that digital court processes are governed by rules more suited to evolving technologies, and the creation of this committee secures the government’s longstanding commitment to leading the way in making this a reality.

“The work of the OPRC will help make online court and tribunal services more accessible, encouraging more people to resolve their disputes early and helping them get the timely and specialist support they need.”

Sir Geoffrey added: “The OPRC will oversee the creation of an end-to-end digital journey allowing people to resolve their disputes more quickly and efficiently. It will provide the necessary governance for the digital justice system as it develops.”

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