Could eBay-Style Online Dispute Resolutions Work In Small Civil Claims Case?

In an ideal world how would you like to see justice dispensed?

Would you prefer to pursue a civil claim through the small claims court, or would you prefer to go down the dispute resolution road? Well, if the recommendations of the Civil Justice Council are accepted in full by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, then future civil claims could be dealt with by an online disputes system similar to the one used by online auction behemoth, eBay.

What’s the thinking behind such a left-field idea?

Well, the Civil Justice Council’s report argues that settling ‘minor’ non-criminal cases of less than £25,000 online would reduce the expenses generated by a court. The report, from the council’s online dispute resolution advisory group, suggests conducting a pilot, ahead of an anticipated full roll-out in 2017. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service says it welcomes the report.

So how would this new dispute resolution system work? Well, the proposed online dispute resolution scheme would be similar to the one used by online marketplace eBay to diagnose and resolve disputes. Online facilitators would use their experience and arbitration skills to help parties reach an agreement. Should that method fail, online judges would then rule on cases without the need for courts to be booked or for the parties involved to appear in person to give evidence.

Under the proposals, tier one would be “dispute avoidance”, with interactive guides and information to help people understand their issues and identify the best way of resolving them.

Tier two would be “dispute containment”, using “online facilitators” to help the parties reach agreement.

Tier three would be “dispute resolution”, employing the use of judges to consider suitable cases online, largely on the basis of papers received electronically, but with an option of telephone hearings.

So would such a radical and fundamental change to the way the courts deal with smaller claims work?

Well, eBay’s dispute resolution system settles over 60 million claims a year, so it’s certainly got the credentials to deliver the service. That’s the opinion of the report’s lead author, Prof Richard Susskind, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice. He said eBay’s model was ‘remarkable’ and could be used in a similar way in the civil courts system which was “too costly, too complex and too slow”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said eBay disputes “are minor differences, but so are the very many differences in our civil courts system”. He told the programme that the system had the potential to resolve tens of thousands of cases every year and would cost less for the parties involved and the taxpayer. Moreover, the online court system would, in his opinion, probably resolve most cases during the first two stages of the process, without the need for a judge’s involvement.

Lord Dyson, chairman of the Civil Justice Council, said in the foreword of the report that the area of online dispute resolution had “enormous potential”. It was his belief that if such a system were adopted it would “broaden access to justice and resolve disputes more easily, quickly and cheaply.”

“There will be a lot of work to be done, but I have no doubt that ODR will play an important role in the future of civil justice,” he added.

The proposal for the creation of an online court comes five months after a senior judge called for courts to cut down on paper documents and move into the digital age. In September, Lady Justice Gloster, who sits in the Court of Appeal, said the amount offiles used in trials was similar to when she started her legal career 40 years ago.

The Law Society welcomed the proposals but said “lessons should be learned about existing systems”. A spokesman said:

“Proper consultation and proper investment would be essential. There has been a long history of underinvestment in court IT in England and Wales.”

“A decade ago Lord Justice Woolf, in his report Access to Justice, identified the importance of better IT to the future of the civil justice system and in 2009 Lord Justice Jackson noted that the courts still did not have an IT system which was adequate for the delivery of civil justice at proportionate cost.”

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