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British courts to hand out eBay-style justice

Barry Collins
16 Feb 2015
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Minor legal disputes to be settled by online courts modelled on eBay

British legal cases could soon be settled in an online court, similar to the system used to settle disputes on eBay. The virtual courtrooms could be used to settle civil claims of up to £25,000, according to proposals submitted by the Civil Justice Council. 

The proposals aim to bring parts of the British justice system into the 21st century, using a variation of a system that has long been used to settle disputes between buyers and sellers on the online auction site. That could mean cases being resolved without any human intervention whatsoever, according to a report authored by Professor Richard Susskind, who says the system could be up and running by 2017.

"When a conflict is handled using ODR [online dispute resolution], a traditional courtroom or hearing room is not employed," the report states. "Instead, the process of settling a dispute is entirely or largely conducted across the internet. In other words, dispute resolution services are made available as a type of online service.

"Many techniques fall under the umbrella of ODR. Sometimes human beings remain heavily involved, as when ODR systems provide facilities for judges, mediators, or negotiators to handle disputes by communicating electronically with parties and by reviewing documents in digital form. On other occasions, the assessment of a legal problem or the negotiation itself might be enabled by the ODR service without much or any expert intervention."

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Professor Susskind described eBay's dispute resolution system as "remarkable" and said a similar system could be used to replace parts of the civil courts, which are "too costly, too complex and too slow". 

Susskind's report says the proposals are "not science fiction" and that ODR schemes are already being used successfully in legal systems around the world. "For many lawyers and judges, our recommendations and the contents of the report may appear rather alien and even disruptive," the report states. "Our Group takes the view that radical new solutions are needed in these challenging times for the court system."

"This could be the legal world's 'fluoride moment' – just as putting fluoride in the water in the 1950s radically reduced the need for dental work on tooth decay, then, similarly in law, appropriate investment in containment and avoidance should greatly reduce the number of cases coming before our courts," the report adds.

The report proposes that a pilot scheme be established before a full rollout in 2017. 

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