2017 has marked yet another milestone in legal history: in the last months, we have seen the arrival of the first online courts. Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland and China all have projects with online courts that are either already operational or in the process being developed.
The first online court ever was established in British Columbia, Canada. Since 1 June 2017, a few hundred small claims disputes have been heard and resolved entirely online. Any civil small claim dispute with a value of up to $5,000 can be handled by British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal via the internet.
“It is the world’s first online dispute tribunal, that is tied with the public justice system,” says British Columbia’s Justice Minister Suzanne Anton. “If you can take these minor matters out of a court room, you free up the court room for important criminal matters and more difficult matters that courts are suited for handling.”
Another advantage is that an online court makes the justice system more accessible. “I think people are intimidated to go to court,” says Professor Kenneth Thornicroft. “Most people have access to an online system, you can go to most public library and get access and deal with the dispute on your own time, you’re not locked into the times of the courts.”
Soon afterwards, the UK also launched its first pilot project for “new digital procedure for money claims under £10,000”. The project started on 31 July 2017 and will last 28 months, i.e. until 30 November 2019.
At present the project is in a “private beta” phase, and is only available to eligible users by invitation only. From January 2018 on, the project will go to “public beta”, meaning it will be opened up to all court users with an appropriate claim. It is expected that HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) will be providing face-to-face assistance to the half of people signed up to it who are expected to need help with filling in forms.
In a lecture, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton said that the “online solutions court should be seen as a template for securing now and over time in the future the critical object of greater access to justice.” He added that the court would operate in a problem-solving way. “It will be problem-solving in the sense that the Online Court through stage 1 and 2 of the process will help the parties find the appropriate solution to their dispute.”
In September 2017, Ireland’s Supreme Court also started moving a significant portion of its work online, as part of a push to bring more of the courts system onto the internet. The plan is that all applications for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, including the filing of documents and the delivery of decisions, will take place online. It is hoped this will be the first step in bringing huge amounts of the appeal process, at all levels, out of the courtrooms and onto the internet. Chief Justice Frank Clarke said it will take about a year before the first online case is considered.
Another online court that is already operational can be found in Hangzhou, China. It handled its first case on 18 August 2017. The court operates with a judge and a jury. It hears cases regarding online shopping, microfinance loans, copyright infringement, product liability and related issues. Cases can be filed entirely electronically in a matter of minutes. When the case is handled, it is live streamed, and parties can present their arguments via video conferencing. The court uses technologies like face recognition, Speech Recognition Systems, and artificial intelligence to draft judgments.
Most experts agree that the arrival of online courts can be good thing in as far as it 1) can simplify access to Justice, and 2) can speed up procedures. As mentioned above, the organizers of the UK pilot project anticipate that half of the people using the system will still need assistance while filling out the online forms. This, however, is an area where intelligent bots have already proven that they can play a useful role, too. So, we can expect even more of the procedure to be automated.