There have recently been two reports making proposals for reform of the civil justice system.
In the first, published in February 2015, a committee of the Civil Justice Council, chaired by Professor Richard Susskind made proposals for the development of online dispute resolution (ODR)
In summary the report calls for radical change in the way that the court system of England and Wales handles low value civil claims. We strongly advocate the introduction of online dispute resolution (ODR). The committee argued, in outline:
- For low value claims, we are concerned that our current court system is too costly, too slow, and
too complex, especially for litigants in person.
- To overcome these problems, our main recommendation is that HM Courts & Tribunals Service
should establish a new, Internet-based court service, known as HM Online Court (HMOC).
- On HMOC, members of the Judiciary would decide cases on an online basis, interacting
electronically with parties. Earlier resolution of disputes on HMOC would also be achieved –
through the work of individuals we call ‘facilitators’.
- We predict two major benefits would flow from HMOC – an increase in access to justice (a
more affordable and user-friendly service) and substantial savings in the cost of the court system.
- ODR is not science fiction. We present a series of case studies from around the world that clearly
demonstrate its potential.
- We argue that to improve access to justice, it is vital not just to have better methods of resolving
disputes but also to have effective ways of avoiding and containing disputes. ODR can help here.
- The technology underpinning ODR is evolving rapidly. We make a series of predictions about
the likely capabilities of later generations of ODR system.
- Our Group would be pleased to work closely with HMCTS in a new phase of work, that should
focus on piloting the proposals in this report.
Their report is available at https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/reviews/online-dispute-resolution/odr-report-february-2015/
More recently JUSTICE has published an important report – Civil Justice in an Age of Austerity. A Committee, chaired by retired Court of Appeal Judge Sir Stanley Burnton, argues that the age of austerity should also be seen as ‘an age of opportunity’ to change the way the civil justice system operates.
It supports the proposals for ODR made by the Civil Justice Group (above) but goes further proposing that the courts take more responsibility for ‘triaging’ cases – with court officials playing a more proactive role in helping parties to disputes to resolve their problems themselves, leaving judges to deal with the most complex cases. It also argues for better information about legal rights and obligations.
The JUSTICE report is available at http://justice.org.uk/delivering-justice-in-an-age-of-austerity-report-launch/
Given the General Election, it will be some time before policy initiatives – if any – emerge from Government. But they show that there are influential figures in the legal system anxious to promote greater efficiency and a clearer user focus on the work of the courts.
In February 2015, the Government announced that – from March 2015 – it would be possible for those charged with minor motoring offences to plead online.People charged with summary motoring offences, like speeding, failing to identify the driver or using a vehicle without insurance, are now able to use the website to respond to charges against them.
The new digital system means defendants will be able to make their plea from any suitable device 24 hours a day through the secure website.
The service is offered as an alternative to a postal plea or attending court and was developed with court users to meet their needs. It was trialled in the Greater Manchester are before being rolled out nationally.
The ‘make a plea’ site is at https://www.makeaplea.justice.gov.uk/
Just before the 2014-15 Parliamentary session came to an end, the Government announced that it had accepted in principle all the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson on improving efficiency in the Criminal Justice system. (See entry in this blog in January 2015).
Particular emphasis was placed on changes that might be brought about with no or very little public expenditure.
The announcement was made in a letter from the Lord Chancellor to Lord Justice Leveson.
The 5th review of Implementation of Law Commission Reports was published in March 2015. This states that the number of Law Commission reports on which no further steps towards implementation are being taken has been reduce to 1 – on compensation for substandard administrative action. A reasonable number of reports have been implemented wholly or in part, while a longer list of reports is still subject to further consideration in Government.
While implementation of Law Commission reports will never reach 100%, there are indications that the success rate is improving slowly.
From 1 August 2015, Lord Justice Bean will be Chair of the Law Commission – a three year appointment. Professor David Ormerod has been reappointed for a further five year term.
In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, 2012, provision was made (section 85) to give magistrates greater flexibility in the fines that they may impose. Offences are divided into 5 levels – the least serious are level 1 offences, the most serious level 5. Up to now, the maximum fine for level 5 offences has generally been £5000 (although there are special circumstances where the maximum is set at a higher level). Regulations have now been made and brought into force (15 March 2015) whereby, for offences which attract a level 5 sentence, magistrates now have power to impose fines without any cap being imposed.
This will mean that in cases where magistrates want to impose higher fines for level 5 offences, they will no longer have to send cases to the Crown Court for sentence.
Magistrates who want to impose a prison sentence of more than 6 months still have to commit such cases to the Crown Court for sentencing.
The fact that magistrates in future will have increased sentencing powers will not mean that they will automatically be increasing their sentences; indeed this is likely to happen in only a small number of the most serious cases.
The Sentencing Council gives detailed guidance on the appropriate amount of fines to be imposed within each level . These relate both to the seriousness of the offence and the means available to the defendant. See
Ruth Wayte is the principal legal adviser with the Legal Aid Agency. In this podcast she reflects on the changes that have been taking place to the legal aid scheme. She acknowledges that legal aid practitioners have experienced significant cuts in the fees they receive for the work they do. But she also notes that there are still practitioners seeking contracts for work from the legal aid agency. Most applications to tender for work are well subscribed. She also comments on a number of the legal issues that have arisen in the courts, arising out of changes to the legal aid scheme.
You can hear her remarks at: