The civil courts need to learn from the ombudsman model, “whereby huge numbers of relatively low value or low stakes cases are resolved simply, quickly and cheaply by avoiding hearings all together”, according to the civil servant in charge of digitising the courts.
Kevin Gallagher, digital director at HM Courts & Tribunals Service, said that, for example, “for a dispute between neighbours about the height of a leylandii tree, iPhone evidence and a video hearing may prove far more effective than the parties appearing in a court miles from the site in question.
It must also be “as straightforward to claim uncontested probate as it is to submit a tax return or renew your annual car tax”.
Speaking at a modernising justice conference in London, Mr Gallagher said that “to develop services for users and for technology to effectively improve how the courts and tribunals service operates, we will not be recreating our current processes online”.
He explained: “The opportunities for digital services cannot be hampered by decades-old processes. Instead, we are getting under the skin of how our courts and tribunals operate and putting user needs at the heart of it all.”
The problem, he said, was that the courts have continued to look and feel the same while change has been happening in so many other areas: “The only place you are likely to see a VHS recorder is in one of our courtrooms.”
Mr Gallagher continued: “As a justice system, we need to reach the point where it is expected that a police officer will give evidence by video, taking 10 minutes rather than half of their working day.
“We need to stop using prison vans to transport prisoners to and from the courts for short plea hearings which could be done online. And we need to, as Sir Brian Leveson recommended in his review, limit what happens in the criminal court room to just trials and complex sentencing.”
A key component of the changes would be to develop a system that took procedures out of court that did not need to be there, he said, such as:
- Helping divorces to be agreed and progressed online; as well as allowing financial issues and child arrangements to be settled through online mediation rather than in the courtroom;
- Taking non summary offences such as traffic or fare evasion out of the court room to be dealt with through automated processes; and
- Supporting the work of tribunals by making it much easier to submit applications and evidence online and share with all parties.
Mr Gallagher said the new online plea functionality for traffic offences has increased the number of pleas made and in turn reduced the number of non-pleas and court sessions held ‘in absence’.
Further, paperless working was becoming a reality in the criminal courts, with more than six million pages of evidence now stored on the Digital Case System, while the eJudiciary system gave all magistrates and judges instant access to key services and information relevant to their role and region.
Digitising the civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions to follow the criminal courts was the next step, he said, while also highlighting four projects where technology was a key enabler.
“The probate service will see the introduction of online applications supporting a structured approach, removing ambiguity, handling payments, providing online case tracking and automated management where possible and appropriate.
“We will also, dramatically improve the efficiency of uncontested divorces, removing unnecessary delays at what can be a difficult time.
“Social security and child support appeals will be supported through the introduction of an online service for tribunal users to start and progress a case, and for judges to use digital case information to decide the case online or in a hearing. And through effective working with the Department of Work and Pensions, we will be able to eradicate the need to post bundles of paper passed between departments.
“And the online court project has considerable potential for moving lower value civil claims out of the courtroom to be progressed more quickly, and at lower cost.”
Mr Gallagher said they had learned from past government IT project problems. “Gone are the days of single, large scale, beginning-to-end government IT projects handed to multinational IT consultancies. HMCTS is creating its own capability to develop, build and continually improve,” he said.
“Of course we will continue to work with third parties to bring skills, expertise and technology, but we will retain control. This will allow us to work in an agile manner, evolving and improving, delivering and supporting services based on user experience and business need, without being inhibited by expensive, inflexible contracts.”