The Role of Online Courts in the Future of Justice

There have been multiple calls for online courts from multiple quarters in the past few years, with the first digital court processes currently in development. Many of these have lauded the concept as a way to use contemporary technology to enhance the UK’s justice processes. However, there have also been reservations, and many of the concerns expressed about the concept of digital courts have also revolved around the integrity of British justice.

About Online Courts

Online courts would in many ways be similar to the small claims track, the closest thing the UK currently has to an online court which can often see financial cases settled through online forms with no physical court appearances. Details of the case and all relevant information would be gathered through online forms, and judges and legal professionals could access, review, and respond to the case remotely. This would, of course, be limited to certain kinds of case for which this kind of approach is felt to be sufficient.

Access to Justice

One of the key strengths that online courts could bring to the UK’s legal system is improving access to justice. Some people in remote rural areas are already quite a distance from their nearest court, and in an age when significant numbers of courts are closing to save costs many of these people are finding themselves further and further away from their “local” centre of justice. For at least some kinds of cases, online courts could provide many of these people with direct access to the courts without the need to travel to a specific physical location. On the negative side, while few have debated the advantages of this the Ministry of Justice has been accused of using online courts as an excuse for closing local courts, and an inferior substitute for keeping them open.

Quality of Justice

This is arguably among the more contentious issues surrounding the impact that online courts may have on how justice is done in the UK. Critics suggest that having cases dealt with online would make it harder to ensure that justice is done properly and fairly, and also express concerns about the fact that some online court proposals may exclude professional legal representation from a number of cases. Proponents of online courts, on the other hand, claim that for many cases an online system is entirely adequate without compromising on the quality of justice, and that by being easier to access and more affordable it would encourage a greater number of people to pursue justice in the first place.

Transparency Concerns Prompt Law Society Withdrawal From MOJ Group

The Law Society has withdrawn from a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) working group over concerns about the transparency of the scheme. The Society has been involved with the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) working group since 2015, but recently announced that it had written to inform the MoJ that it would cease to be a part of the group.

The Law Society of England and Wales is one of the most prominent and influential professional bodies for the legal industry. Representing the interests of both solicitors and the public, its withdrawal from the MoJ working group is significant if only because of the Society’s prominence in the UK legal landscape.

According to the president of the Society, Robert Bourns, the decision to withdraw from the working group was made after “restrictions on how information was shared meant it was not possible for us to contribute to the process in a meaningful way.”

The Law Society expressed concerns about restrictions on the open and transparent use of information, and in particular with its inability to share information and documentation with its own committee of experts. In particular, Law Society members of the AGFS working group “had concerns about late changes to proposals,” said Bourns, but were not allowed to confidentially discuss their concerns with the expert committee of the Law Society.

Bourns continued: “As we are unable to discuss with our expert committee, the Society feels unable to continue to participate in this working group.”

The Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme or AGFS is the scheme that governs legal aid payments for Crown Court advocates. Both barristers and higher court advocates are subject to the scheme, which the MoJ working group aims to review and potentially reform.

The Law Society of England and Wales said that it still intended to take part in public consultations on the review of AGFS, but did not feel that remaining an actual part of the working group would give any added benefit or influence under current terms. In a statement, the society president also made a point of stating that the Society would remain a part of another, related working group concerned with the legal aid payment scheme for litigators.

The Litigators’ Graduated Fee Scheme (LGFS) working group, Bourns said, would continue to benefit from the involvement and contributions from the Law Society. The decision to remain in this group but withdraw from the other, according to Bourns, was that the LGFS group’s “current terms of engagement allow us to make a meaningful contribution with appropriate input from our committee.”