A leading judge has heralded the end of the traditional court hearing for commercial disputes, where lawyers for parties sit simultaneously in a physical court room, in all but exceptional cases.
Giving his vision of online justice  for business disputes, Sir Geoffrey Vos, the Chancellor of the High Court, said oral evidence was in many cases not essential and that when blockchain-based contracts were commonplace, the traditional trial would be rendered largely obsolete.
Speaking at the start of a debate on accelerating the adoption of new technology in the justice system, held by the London-based Foundation for Science and Technology, Sir Geoffrey said that in business disputes the task of lawyers was “to simplify the issues to enable them to be resolved in the most appropriate cost-effective manner”.
He continued: “We can resolve many cases and some aspects of the more complex cases without paying for partners in law firms, assistant solicitors and barristers all to sit, sometimes for hours or days on end, listening to material they can pick up online in far less time.”
With internet-based facilities, such as telepresence, it was not necessary in most cases to be physically present at a hearing or trial. “A real-time hearing whether electronic or in person could be convened only in the cases where it was truly necessary.”
He added: “Preliminary issues could be resolved by online argument… and a judicial determination occurring without costly court attendances by the parties and by lawyers.
“Even evidence could be given in writing online or remotely by Skype.”
If judges were more active in asking questions, directing evidence and so on, many issues could be resolved without trials, the judge said.
“We are probably too hidebound by our procedural rules and our long-established practices.
“Greater flexibility and imagination could cut through the most difficult questions and mean that oral evidence at a synchronous hearing could become the exception rather than the rule.”
In future, he anticipated demand for traditional trials would fall further: “It is very unlikely I think that, once smart contracts and [blockchain technology] become ubiquitous in financial services, banking, insurance, intellectual property, employment, and almost every other legal field imaginable, the parties to a dispute over these engagements will want it resolved by a trial in a traditional court room with everyone flying in from round the world to be present in the same space and time.”
His reservations about digital solutions extended to both the cost to business litigants of technology necessary in the largest cases, and maintaining access to justice so “the use of technology does not exclude the vulnerable or the less wealthy”.