All members of the judiciary have been issued an update outlining the senior judiciary’s plans for 2019 in relation to the introduction of online courts designed to resolve civil disputes across England and Wales. The plans include assurances that courts would be staffed to agreed minimum levels and all courts would have an appropriate number of listing officers based at the court itself and that all video hearings will be accessible to the public.
The HM Courts and Tribunals service in 2016, announced its plan to make it possible for most civil disputes in England and Wales to be resolved through an online court. The response from several members of the judiciary and the National Audit Office was that this goal was an ambitious one. A consultation with the civil judiciary revealed seven priorities which included court staffing, effective IT systems, proposed courts and tribunals service centres, the proper use of case officers and the scope and limits of video hearings.
At the end of 2018, in an attempt by the senior members of the judiciary to allay concerns, an update was sent out to all members of the judiciary summing up individual judges’ responses to the Judicial Way of Working papers and outlining the senior judiciary’s plans for 2019.
President of the High Court family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane’s report includes confirmations that:
• there is no current plan to extend fully video hearings into other areas of family law. They will not normally be appropriate for contested cases involving the giving of oral evidence, for multi-part cases, for cases concerning litigants in person and for cases concerning children. Family court litigants participating in any fully video hearing should do so from authorized places such as a Citizens Advice Bureau or a solicitors’ office
• there will be robust technology in the family court fit for purpose and developed with input from the family judiciary
• all family courts will be staffed to agreed minimum levels
• there will be no case officers in the family court. Consideration is being given to extending legal adviser powers in the family court at the magistrates’ tier.
Sir Brian Leveson. President of the Queen’s Bench division and head of criminal justice stated that:
• online court hearings had to be open to the public and the principle of open justice had to be preserved by adding a live link to a viewing area in the court building where the case was listed
• in the revised model, plea and trial preparation hearings would greatly benefit from new technology. He also stressed the importance of making sure the online service caters to changes in the way legal aid is provided
• trials will not be conducted using the fully video model with the possible exception of some minor offences where the defendant lived a long way away
Judges dealing with civil cases received a letter from Sir Terence Etherton, Master of the Rolls and Lord Justice Coulson, deputy head of civil justice. They assured that:
• courts would be staffed to agreed minimum levels and all courts would have an appropriate number of listing officers based at the court itself. Judges would retain judicial control of all listing functions
• all video hearings will be accessible to the public. Those not held in open court could be viewed on screens
• case officers would now be legally qualified legal advisers. They would be based at the same location as the judge they work with and would be allowed to give directions in any claim for up to £300. There would be an automatic right to reconsideration by a judge
• assisted digital was designed to help those with digital competence as well as those with none
• the judiciary would continue to be closely involved in the development of the common components, including the judicial user interfaceSource: Press release: The Online Court—will IT work?