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Killing the golden goose: City concerns as review backs online courts and regional court hearings

A landmark review of civil justice has backed the creation of an online court for claims worth up to £25,000, and suggests more cases should be heard in the provinces.

An interim report from Lord Justice Briggs is for the first time urging the need to create an online court for claims up to £25,000 to give litigants effective access to justice without having to incur the disproportionate cost of using lawyers.

In the report, Justice Briggs says designs for the structure and software needed for the re-organised courts, particularly the online court, should kick-start as soon as possible.

He proposes three stages including a largely automated, inter-active online process to identify issues; conciliation and case management; and resolution by judges. The court will use documents on screen, telephone, video or face to face meetings to meet the needs of each case.

The review also proposes that more cases are heard in the provinces across the nation. Justice Briggs says in the report: ‘A tendency in the regions (outside the seven main regional civil trial centres) to transfer too many cases to London has a knock-on effect upon the availability of suitably qualified solicitors and counsel in the regions.

‘Legal litigation practices tend to concentrate and flourish where the work is. Any practice which adversely affects the nurturing of viable civil legal practices in towns and cities outside London risks undermining both regional local economies and regional access to civil justice.’

The proposals have raised concerns in the City that the moves could reduce London’s appeal as a civil justice hub.

‘We don’t want to kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs. People choose English law, and if [authorities] make this a hostile environment then they will go elsewhere,’ said Clive Zietman, commercial litigation head at Stewarts Law.

‘There is general hostility towards the litigation process in London. I understand the need to look for efficiency and technology but lots of reforms so far have damaged the administration for justice.

Zietman added: ‘More technology is a good idea but has the government got the money to invest? Reducing the number of county courts will also be good if it works but the realities around implementing this is a different story.’

The proposed court reforms come after the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls, as head of civil justice, requested Justice Briggs carry out an urgent review of the structure of the civil justice courts, from the Court of Appeal to County Courts in July last year. He was tasked to ‘align optimally’ with the Ministry of Justice’s reform programme and look at the overall structure of civil justice.

Comments on the report can be made until the end of next month, ahead of a final report to be published at the end of July.

The full report can be accessed here.