The new Lord Chancellor has thrown his weight behind the Civil Justice Council’s recent proposals for online dispute resolution – while also indicating that this could lead to a shrinking of the court estate.
In a wide-ranging speech that also took in criminal justice , legal aid and the need for top lawyers to give back more to the community , Michael Gove recognised that “without our civil and family courts, or our tribunal services, our contracts are unenforceable, and individuals left with no recourse when deprived of their rights”.
He continued: “But it astonishes businesses and individuals alike that they cannot easily file their case online. And it astounds them that they cannot be asked questions online and in plain English, rather than on paper and in opaque and circumlocutory jargon.
“The current system adds to stress at times of need, and restricts access to high quality resolution of disputes by simply being too complex, too bureaucratic and too slow. Across our court and tribunal system we need to challenge whether formal hearings are needed at all in many cases, speed up decision making, give all parties the ability to submit and consider information online, and consider simple issues far more proportionately.
“Thanks to pioneering work the judiciary have commissioned from reformers like Professor Richard Susskind, there is now a huge opportunity to take many of these disputes online. Questions which have previously required expensive court time and have often as a result been marked by acrimony, bitterness and depleted family resources can now be resolved more quickly, efficiently and harmoniously.”
In February, the group led by Professor Susskind said it was time for a “radical and fundamental change” in the way the courts deal with low-value claims, and called for the introduction of state-backed online dispute resolution  across England and Wales in 2017.
Mr Gove said automation would allow judges to spend their time on the most important work.
“The reform programme which the judiciary want to implement is being planned now. We have already committed to invest in the technology which will underpin it. This reform programme could liberate tens of thousands of individuals from injustice and free hundreds of thousands of hours of professional time.
“Online solutions and telephone and video hearings can make justice easier to access and reduce the need for long – and often multiple – journeys to court. And we can reduce our dependence on an ageing and ailing court estate which costs around one third of the entire courts and tribunals budget.”
The Lord Chancellor said that “inevitably, that means looking again at the court estate”.
“It is still the case that many of our courts stand idle for days and weeks on end. Last year over a third of courts and tribunals sat for less than 50% of their available hours (10am-4pm). At a time when every government department has to find savings it makes more sense to deliver a more efficient court estate than, for example, make further big changes to the legal aid system.”