The Briggs Report and Online Solutions

August 1, 2016

I cannot tell you how disappointed I was part way through reading the very detailed chapter on the Online Court in the {Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report:} by Lord Justice Briggs. The whole point of devoting my time and energy to reading it on my return from a short break abroad was to write a blog post full of coruscating critical analysis. Sadly, I found nothing to disagree with. Each point of potential criticism is met head on and dealt with fairly – Lord Justice Briggs even ‘repents’ an earlier view or two.

It is hard to base a blog post full of criticism on two typos in para 6.45 and a habit, possibly unique to Lord Justice Briggs but perhaps (more worryingly) an indicator that the court justice establishment has not fully entered the 21st century, of hyphenating ‘lap-top’. I yield to few in my pedantry but these are fragile pins on which to hook a critical blog post.

So, I am left with recommending that you set aside enough time to read the report in full if you possibly can. Reading Chapter 6 is a requirement for anyone interested in the concept of the online court or seeking to offer sensible criticism of it.

I am left with a few reflections in place of criticism.

The acceptance that such a court requires a change in attitude, away from an adversarial approach, is dealt with almost in passing: ‘the concept of a less adversarial, more investigative court is already the norm in most of Europe, and informally practised by DJs when dealing with disputes involving LiPs in the Small Claims Track’. It reflects (as is noted elsewhere in the Report) an existing change because of the increasing number of LiPs and the way in which small claims are dealt with but I am not sure that the public have grasped this. A massive educational project beckons. A non-adversarial approach in family proceedings has been the (supposed) norm for most cases for almost half a century but it is still not widely understood.

Secondly, I was perhaps most impressed by the grasp shown of the importance of the need for public education if the ‘triage system’ is to work properly and if the ‘Online Solutions Court’ is to serve the most pressing need: ‘The provision of the Online Court as a means of increasing access to justice for ordinary people needs to be viewed in the context of the provision made nationally for public legal education, that is, educating would-be court users about the essentials of the service provided by the courts for the vindication of their civil rights, including the basics of navigating court process, alternatives to court proceedings and some of the essentials of both substantive and procedural law’. But to have a discussion about how best to address that problem while public libraries are being closed all over the country is slightly mad. I fancy that we may not only end up closing the stable door after the horse has bolted but will be rebuilding the stable after we used its wood to light the stove. The long-standing community advice role of libraries should be exploited not dissolved and they should be one of the building-blocks in providing public legal education.

Thirdly, there is a worrying tendency for the government’s magic new post-referendum mandate to stretch to a reconsideration of everything that it was committed to before. If Hinkley Point and austerity can bite the dust, a new courts strategy can be binned on a whim. I can do little more than cross my fingers and hope that the Report’s guidance leads to firm action and that its proposals are not diluted.

My last sad reflection is a personal one. How I would have loved to be involved in the design and implementation of the systems and educational support that are needed for the online court. It can be the stuff of my dreams. Reading the Briggs Report was like looking in the mirror, when I invariably wish I was (at least) 10 years younger.