The new master of the rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, has called for an ‘integrated online dispute resolution system’ to be brought into the civil justice system. The general concept is that all claims would begin online before entering a digital court process in “a fundamental generational reform of the civil justice system”. As the courts struggle with reduced capacity and closures due to Coronavirus, Master Vos’ comments could not come at a more relevant time. Many cases are currently being delayed, and all stakeholders are having to find new ways of working and coping with potential delays caused by the pandemic.
In other areas within the legal system, several similar systems have already been established: the Criminal Justice System has the Crown Court Digital Case System, which acts as a central reference for evidence, parties and other matters for each case; the Land Registry has an internal platform to streamline applications, and much of the document request process is automated; HMRC has a fully fledged online tax portal, which is accessible to individuals and businesses. These three systems were clearly designed with the intent of speeding up administrative and filing tasks, and perform well in streamlining work in their fields.
There have been some attempts over the past five years or so to increase the emphasis on technology: the introduction of the new disclosure scheme introduced in January 2019; and the new CE File system from 2014 onwards which is being rolled out across the civil system. However, both additions appear primarily to be aimed at reducing burdens on the court, rather than fundamentally overhauling the system as a whole, and ultimately the system can still be dependent on hard copy documents at several stages of the process. That said, the courts have embraced technology throughout the pandemic with remote hearings and electronic bundles, demonstrating how effective the use of technology can be.
Any more fundamental changes will as always come with issues to be overcome and implementation costs would also be likely to be significant.
Master Vos’ comments also hinted at the use of algorithms in civil justice.
There are already several proof-of-concept developments for straightforward/low value areas of dispute, and projects looking into AI as a supplementary tool (especially in areas such as e-disclosure). It is likely that technology will continue to be an increasingly pervasive aspect to all areas of life and it makes sense for the civil justice system to embrace technological advances as much as possible to enhance the administration of justice further.