The Law Society has responded to the first stage of a review of the structure of the civil courts in England and Wales being undertaken by Lord Justice Briggs.

President of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers said: ‘We support the desire to provide a modern, efficient and accessible civil dispute resolution service for all and we welcome innovation. We caution against further changes to the process of civil justice at a time when the impacts of earlier changes have not yet been assessed. It is equally important that new ideas are thoroughly considered, worked through and tested before being put into practice. Making changes to one part of the justice system may have unintended consequences for another part and for the ordinary citizens who rely on it.

‘The Law Society recognises the important role of IT in the justice system and that an online approach to civil justice could offer efficiency savings for lower value cases. An online court must not be used as a way of normalising or condoning a two tier justice system where people who cannot afford professional advice are forced to represent themselves, putting them at an unfair disadvantage. Whatever the value of a case, it is vital that court users are properly advised by a professional to support a just and fair outcome.’

The introduction of an online court could also lead to inequity if it restricts access to justice for people who do not have IT facilities, who are not IT literate, who have learning difficulties or who do not have English as their first language. It is also critical that legal advice is available to help people navigate the online court. Similarly, progress on the rollout of fast and superfast broadband indicates that there is some way to go in some areas, including Wales, which has the lowest level of internet access in the UK, so access to the online court may vary depending on the user’s location. The online court also raises important issues of data security and protection.’

Jonathan Smithers commented: ‘Solicitors have significant experience of working at an early stage with those considering litigation and are ideally placed to support clients who choose to use the online court as they will understand and foresee the kind of issues that could arise. Solicitors will also assist litigants in complying with procedural requirements, thereby mitigating the risk that the online court gets clogged up with incomplete or inaccurate information, leading to further costs, delays and appeals.

‘We will be calling on our wider membership to inform our response to Briggs’ next, interim report - to be published in the New Year - and to the Government’s consultation when that is published. It is important to assess the evidence about what court users actually want from their court system and what works for them. We support the use of consumer research to underpin any final proposals.’