Earlier this afternoon, the Chancellor brought to an end speculation about whether funds for radical technology-driven reform to the court service would be made available. He confirmed that £700 million of the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) spending settlement would be allocated to this project, saying that “the Lord Chancellor has worked with the Lord Chief Justice and others to put forward a typically bold and radical plan to transform our courts so they are fit for the modern age.”
The flip side of this positive news – which BLM has been anticipating for several weeks – is that under-used courts will certainly close and, according to today’s announcement from the MoJ, it will continue to “look at changes to court fees”.
The detail of the nature of the change to court procedures and practices will only be clearer over the next few months. The project is very likely to require legislative support – possibly primary legislation as well as rule changes – and may well incorporate the findings of Lord Justice Briggs’ ongoing review of the fundamental structure of the civil courts in England and Wales.
Lord Justice Brigg’s interim report, to the senior judiciary initially, is due by the end of 2015. After that, the review will enter its public consultative phase some time next year. It is entirely possible that the two main strands of the overall court reform project - technology support and structural change – could dominate the debate on civil justice during this Parliament in much the same way that the Jackson reforms did during the last Parliament.
Since the May 2015 election, many senior judges, Ministers and civil servants have given a number of high-profile speeches, which all have pointed towards a favourable announcement of funding for court reform, driven by technology and digitisation. Today’s statement confirms that the starting gun has been fired. There is now the real prospect that the £700 million investment will, over the next five years, propel the courts very quickly into the 21st century and away from the current and largely 20th century practices and procedures that take place in 19th century buildings up and down the country.
The Chancellor’s announcement today confirms what Lord Dyson – the most senior civil judge in the country – had anticipated in February in a foreword, below, to a report about online dispute resolution (ODR). His remarks then now look set to become reality:
“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. ODR is also in harmony with wider changes in society, in particular the advances in technology and the large scale use of online services to transact all forms of business. The courts have some catching up to do with other areas of business and Government.”