Spending on Online Court “should be halted”, says leading academic

Smith: would wait until lessons from Canadian online court learned

No further public money should be spent on the Online Court until the performance of the newly-expanded online tribunal in British Columbia – which went live for small claims last month – has been assessed, according to veteran justice campaigner Professor Roger Smith.

“Personally, I would give it at least a year before I spent a single penny,” he wrote in a blog recently.

Professor Smith – who is researching the role of technology in improving access to justice – went on: “There seem very good reasons to delay implementation of online courts until we can see what happens in other countries… the sensible advice may be to wait and see what lessons arise.”

Reflecting on the demise of the Dutch Rechtwijzer online dispute resolution (ODR) project, he highlighted problems with government-backed IT projects, in particular that, unlike the private sector, failure meant the project was abandoned rather than “being able to recover and return” with improvements.

Speaking to Legal Futures, he said: “My concerns about the Online Court are that it might be brought in too quickly.

“It might be a one-time deal because it’s built with the money from selling off the courts – there’s no money to adjust it once it is up and running… let the British Columbians spend the money.”

The Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) in the Canadian province started taking small claims from 1 June after beginning with condominium disputes only.

Professor Smith also urged the government to be frank about the cost of the Online  Court and the benchmarks against which it would be judged: “All these initiatives should be monitored and evaluated really tightly against very clear criteria.

“What is our projection for the numbers of people going through the… court? On what number will we say ‘if it’s less than that, it’s not successful’?

“You need the numbers and the price point. We don’t know the assumptions and have no idea of what it is going to cost…

“Ministers won’t tell you, but we’ve got to be told now what are their expectations for cost.”

He asked rhetorically how Google or Amazon would go about building an online court. “They would say [the objective is] ‘a dispute resolution system for 2m people costing no more than £50 each. How would we do it?’”

He conceded that it was unlikely any figures would be forthcoming, but said: “[There is] no harm in asking.”

In another blog, Professor Smith praised the winners of last weekend’s online court hackathon, saying: “Some impressive thinking has gone into this.”

The winning chatbot could help with “what would traditionally be seen as pre-court process”, which in British Columbia was done by its Solution Explorer – the first step in the CRT process which gives litigants free legal information and self-help tools.

To Legal Futures, he continued: “The hackathon was won by a group which produced a way of taking up a housing disrepair case, which was really imaginative…

“It’s the kind of case which might well be swept under the carpet because there isn’t any legal aid for it at the moment… and will be highly material to the Grenfell Tower discussions.”

Separately, the US company Modria, on whose ODR platform – first developed for the electronic payments system PayPal – the Rechtwijzer was built, has been acquired by Tyler Technologies.

The global business already owns a suite of “courts and justice and appraisal and tax solutions”, notably its Odyssey software, which is used by US courts, jails and lawyers.

Tyler counts among its clients “more than 15,000 local government offices in all 50 [US] states, Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and other international locations”.

Bruce Graham, president of the company’s courts and justice division, said: “ODR provides our clients yet another powerful technology tool to help them transform the way justice works in their jurisdictions.

“Modria is the clear leader in ODR and, when combined with Odyssey Guide & File for self-represented litigants, Modria will provide our clients an even more efficient way to manage a large volume of cases.”


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