In today’s content-light Queen Speech, the Government has announced that it intends to press on with the Court reforms, and re-introduce the Court’s half of the Prison and Courts bill first unveiled by Elizabeth Truss, the former Justice Secretary, in February 2017. In essence: the penal reform element has been dropped completely; measures to modernise the court system remain.

The Courts Bill will reform the courts system in England and Wales and embrace more modern technology. This is likely to herald the online court, with the government saying it will introduce digital services to allow businesses to pursue their cases quickly, enabling them to recover debts more easily.

The Government hopes that this will give them vital confidence to do business here, and will enable “our world leading justice system to remain the international destination of choice for dispute resolution”. The online court will be the first court ever to be designed in England and Wales for use by litigants without lawyers.

The Government has estimated that the reforms will lead to savings of £226m per year.


How will this be done?

The talk is that the creation of an online court will be for claims worth up to £25,000. Online dispute resolution was a key proposal from legal futurologist Professor Richard Susskind, and in a subsequent report, Lord Justice Briggs found a “clear and pressing need” to create an online court for claims up to £25,000.

Interested members of the public will be able to view virtual court hearings from purpose-built booths in court buildings. The proposal is an attempt to counter threats to open justice by a court system increasingly operating digitally. Court listings and case results will also be published online.

The online court is envisaged to work in three stages: the first a largely automated service for identifying issues; the second conciliations and case management by case officers; the third resolution by judges.


Is this a good thing?

In my view, key to these proposals succeeding is a commitment from the Government to invest the necessary funds in order to build a fit-for-purpose Court IT system – what Lord Justice Briggs calls “the introduction and imaginative use of IT” and “behavioural and cultural change”. Without this, the proposals will simply not work.

Several items need to be ironed out including what types of claim should be excluded, what costs will be paid by each side and how the appeal process would work.

Lawyers fear — wrongly, I believe — that it will take the bread out of their mouths. However, the proposals seem to me to be enormously sensible, as it is important to allow effective access to justice without having to incur the disproportionate cost of using lawyers for small disputes. Litigation is unaffordable for most SMEs, and as the number of commercial claims going to court continues to decline, many believe this is because businesses aren’t pursuing claims because of the prohibitive costs of both court fees and legal advice.

Small claims cases worth up to £10,000 account for almost 70% of hearings in civil courts in England and Wales. However, the number of small claims going to hearing has fallen over recent years, from 51,046 in 2003 to 29,603 in 2013.

There must be another way for companies or individuals to pursue straightforward, low-value disputes – and an online court might well be the solution.