Civil disputes ‘should be settled online’

Civil disputes involving less than £25,000 could be settled via an eBay-style online service, a new report has recommended.

The Civil Justice Council, which oversees and co-ordinates the modernisation of the civil justice system, published its Online Dispute Resolution for Low Value Civil Claims report on 16 February, which describes online dispute resolution (ODR) as “an area with enormous potential.”

The report, produced by the council’s ODR Advisory Group, adds: “At a time of major pressure on public spending and high legal costs, ODR offers a major opportunity to help many people for whom public funding to resolve disputes is not available, or for whom legal costs are prohibitive.” It recommends the introduction of a three tier internet-based court service known as HM Online Court (HMOC):

  • tier one would provide online evaluation, helping people with an issue to classify their problem, understand their rights and responsibilities and the available options and remedies
  • in tier two, online facilitators would review papers and statements and help parties through mediation and negotiation, via the internet with additional teleconferencing, where necessary. The report says: “There will be some automated negotiation, which are systems that help parties resolve their differences without the intervention of human experts”
  • tier three would involve online judges, who would decide cases, or parts of cases, on an online basis via papers submitted electronically, with telephone conferencing as appropriate.

The report adds: “Although our terms of reference are restricted to civil claims under the value of £25,000, we believe that the jurisdiction of HMOC should also be extended to suitable family disputes and to appropriate cases that come before today’s tribunals.

“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.”

It cites organisations already successfully using ODR including eBay – where 60 million disagreements a year are resolved in this way – domain name registry company Nominet and the Traffic Penalty Tribunal of England and Wales.

The report says that assuming its recommendations are adopted, the ODR to be launched in England and Wales in 2017.

Whether the recommendations are accepted remains to be seen, if the proposals are given the go-ahead the challenge will be – as the report itself points out – delivering a system that fulfils the aims of extending access to justice and resolving disputes more easily, quickly and cheaply.

At Palmers, we regularly assist businesses to resolve commercial disputes through mediation, without the need for any court proceedings.

By bringing the two sides together in a neutral setting, we can help them to improve communication and understanding of each other’s perspective, with a focus on reaching a mutually acceptable outcome and maintaining an ongoing commercial relationship. For more information, please contact us.