Thousands of legal disputes would be settled online each year under plans for an eBay-inspired revolution in the civil justice system.
Judges would rule on cases involving up to £25,000 without the need for courts to be booked or for the parties involved to appear in person to give evidence. The proposed shake-up – which is supported by senior judges – could also save large sums for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Lord Dyson, who is Master of the Rolls and the second-most senior judge in the country, said the proposals marked an “important milestone” for the courts as the justice system had been far too slow to embrace online technology.
He predicted the report would be a catalyst for “far-reaching reform” to the civil justice system. The plans have been drawn up by the Civil Justice Council (CJC), which advises on the modernisation of justice. In a conclusion welcomed by the MoJ, the CJC argued that an online system running alongside traditional courts would increase access to justice and streamline the legal process.
The CJC working group recommended the establishment of a pilot scheme which would focus on disputes involving less than £25,000. Judges would decide cases online after analysing documents submitted electronically, with an option of telephone hearings.
It said it had drawn inspiration from eBay, which settles a “remarkable” 60 million disagreements between traders using “online dispute resolution”.
It also highlighted a new online system launched by the Traffic Penalty Tribunal, which arbitrates on disputes between motorists and councils in England and Wales. “The portal enables appellants to appeal, upload evidence and follow cases and hearings under one evidence screen and account.
“Likewise, each authority has a dashboard showing current cases, enabling them to submit evidence, comment, and follow the progress of hearings and decisions,” the report said.
Lord Dyson, the head of civil justice in England and Wales, said: “I see this as an exciting milestone in the history of our civil justice system. We have been very slow off the mark in this country in taking advantage of technology in our justice system. Other countries are way ahead of us.
“There is no doubt that online dispute resolution is an area with enormous potential. Its aim is to broaden access to justice and resolve disputes more easily, quickly and cheaply. The challenge lies in delivering a system that fulfils that objective.”
Lord Dyson stressed that the concept of online courts was at an early stage, adding that an important question was how the public and journalists would have access to deliberations.
The Courts and Tribunals Service, which is an MoJ agency, welcomed the recommendations as “important and thought-provoking” and said it was “actively exploring in more detail” the idea of online dispute resolution.
The MoJ said its aim was to enable all court professionals to be able to operate without paper, with lawyers working from their laptops, rather than relying on stacks of paperwork. However, the Law Society, which represents solicitors, raised fears that courts would not be given IT systems of a sufficiently high quality to handle large numbers of cases.
A spokesman said: “We do not think these current proposals address some fundamental issues. There has been a long history of underinvestment in court IT in England and Wales.
“We are concerned that civil courts remain under-resourced in terms of both staff and IT. The current round of public expenditure cuts is exacerbating this problem.”
The proposals come after a senior judge called for courts to cut down on paperwork and move into the digital age. Lady Justice Gloster, who sits in the Court of Appeal, said the quantity of documents used in trials had little changed since she began her legal career four decades ago.
The MoJ said last year it wanted criminal courtrooms to become digital by 2016, ending an “outdated” reliance on paper.
Large digital screens are due to be fitted in all magistrates’ courts by the summer, allowing the information on lawyers’ laptops to be presented directly to the court. The roll-out of wi-fi at Crown Courts has also begun.
The moves could also save money for the MoJ, which has suffered a real-terms budget cut of 27 per cent – equivalent to £2.7bn a year – between 2010 and 2015 and faces a further 10 per cent reduction in the next financial year.
Cuts to the cost of the courts system are set to yield £200m in savings by next year, while cuts to legal aid and prisons are on course to claw back £220m and £180m respectively.