A major review of civil justice by Lord Justice Briggs has recommended the creation of an online court for claims up to £25,000
The intention would be to create a relatively simple and straightforward system to give litigants effective access to justice without having to incur the costs of using lawyers. It would appear that the recommendations would include possibly online hearings
The report does not address a number of issues including (importantly) what costs will be paid by either side and how appeals from online court hearings would be made
The biggest potential flaw with the proposal is going to be a lack of resources in the form of adequately trained judges as well as adequate software/platforms to run the system. In the criminal litigation sphere, there have been some examples of appalling problems with software delivery in the past.
In relation to the use of lawyers, experience from the Small Claims Track suggests that businesses will continue to use solicitors to run cases unless those businesses have sufficient in-house expertise (in which case they are probably running their own litigation services already and the online service proposed will make no difference).
It seems highly unlikely that most businesses are going to be willing to risk adverse outcomes by not using solicitors for claims in excess of a few thousand pounds (particularly if they are at risk of having to pay the other side’s costs if they lose). This is particularly the case where the late payment legislation applies to the relevant contract and the Claimant can recover their costs under that legislation or where they use contract terms which require the customer to indemnify them for their legal costs in the event of non-payment (in both of those cases, it is in effect possible to get round the existing Small Claims Track and recover costs, so why not use solicitors?).
The bottom line of course with all of these proposals for reform is that they have in truth little to do with access to justice and more to do with saving the government money. The situation in the County Courts has worsened considerably over the last 10 years under successive governments with substantial increases in court fees accompanied by an under resourced service (with lots of court closures) and a complete failure to address the issue of escalating costs for parties who do litigate.
My overall conclusion currently on this proposal is:
In principle a good idea if properly resourced but in practice this will probably be used as another attempt to implement government cutbacks in the civil courts with few corresponding benefits for court users.
On the costs front, what we surely need for commercial debt recovery litigation is a fixed costs regime which is intended to provide 100% compensation for successful claimants who use solicitors or in-house legal teams who operate efficiently and cost effectively.