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  • 16 Jul 2021

    COVID-19 & Technology in Law | How will Justice bounce back?

    The push to move judicial services online is nothing new. Throughout the past decade, there have been numerous attempts to incorporate remote hearing technology into the wider legal system by senior judicial officers; an aspiration to complement traditional court-housed hearings with those conducted through a screen. 

    In his monumental Civil Courts Structure Review [2016], Briggs LJ advocates a new era of ‘Online Court’ in which small claims (under £25,000 in value) can be heard more efficiently and accessibly than ever before. COVID-19 has served only to forcibly accelerate these efforts; it seems likely that the supposedly temporary measures of online hearings might become a permanent feature of Justice in the future. 

    The Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [2019] sets out the way in which small claims in civil and family proceedings may be heard online through the use of remote video platform technology. The Bill seeks to implement the key recommendations made by Briggs LJ in his aforementioned report; that ‘the introduction of an online court might resolve some low-value civil money claims’.

    Increasing flexibility of the court system

    The reasoning behind this step is entirely practical; that court proceedings might be made more convenient and accessible, both physically and financially. Clients will not be made to pay travel expenses for their advocates, and their presence in court buildings is not necessary. 

    It is currently the position of the Judicial Service that online hearings might complement physical hearings to improve court listing flexibility, although both types will be held in the traditional way.

     Sir Geoffrey Vos, Master of The Rolls, advocates an altogether more radical ‘reform of the dispute resolution process itself' so that all cases are started and progress online, and only result in hearings if absolutely necessary. The introduction of automated case management systems could diagnose the root cause of many claims through careful use of artificial intelligence (AI) to skip bureaucratic drafting of claim forms and witness statements. 

    Vos envisages an eventuality in which all smaller civil cases are dealt with by a central automated system as far as possible, with face-to-face hearings in only the most difficult cases. 

    Lord Hodge of The Supreme Court argues that: ‘Technological improvements to the systems, processes and infrastructure of the courts are necessary for any jurisdiction which seriously aspires to be a global centre of excellence for the resolution of disputes.’

    Streamlining legal services

    Automated case triage will be the first in a series of steps which aspire to modernise and streamline the civil claims system. Only after extensive AI analysis will it be determined whether the case requires a traditional hearing, either remote or face-to-face. 

    The Ministry of Justice has committed £1bn to the development of such infrastructure, including the development of legal AI and automated systems. 

    There is still discussion about whether ‘Online Court’ should be a body in its own right, with unique governance and statutes, or form a constituent part of the County Court. The details of the partial or full transition over to remote justice are yet to be determined, though, with the support of the senior judiciary and The Ministry of Justice, it seems increasingly likely that technology will be employed to streamline legal services to become more efficient for litigants and judicial staff alike.

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