Francis Maude: Reducing waiting times for justice

Horsham MP Francis Maude
Horsham MP Francis Maude

You may have seen in the news this week a report calling for low-value civil court cases in England and Wales to be dealt with by an online disputes system similar to that used by eBay.

Settling non-criminal cases of less than £25,000 value online would reduce the expenses generated by a court, and many such cases are simple and minor.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service welcomed the report from the Civil Justice Council’s online dispute resolution advisory group, which suggests that online facilitators would be used to help parties reach an agreement, and if that failed, online judges would rule on cases without the need for courts to be booked or for the parties involved to appear in person to give evidence.

It notes that the dispute resolution system run by eBay settles 60 million disputes between small traders every year, and could be used in a similar way within the civil courts system which is ‘too costly, too complex and too slow’.

Prof Susskind, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice, said the online court would have a three-tier structure: dispute avoidance, dispute containment using online facilitators and finally dispute resolution involving judges. Most disputes would be expected to be resolved at the first two stages without a judge becoming involved. The system has the potential to resolve tens of thousands of cases every year and cost less for the parties involved and the taxpayer. The aim of the report was ‘to broaden access to justice and resolve disputes more easily, quickly and cheaply’.

This is of particular interest to me, both as a lawyer in a former life and the Minister responsible for the ‘digital by default’ agenda in government, charged with making more efficient use of IT to save the tax payer billions of pounds a year. There need be no fear about excluding those who do not have access to computers, or who cannot access the system. This would be offered as a choice, yet a significant take-up would still save a huge amount of public money and, more importantly, greatly reduce waiting times for justice.`

Of course, all this depends on fast, reliable broadband access, and I know that the focus on urban centres has been deeply frustrating for those of you who live in rural areas. So I was delighted to see just before Christmas that Billingshurst, Faygate and Handcross in my constituency have now got access to fast fibre broadband cabinets.

Fast, reliable broadband internet access is essential for people to benefit from online services, and for UK businesses to compete globally.

In Billingshurst alone, there are more than 660 registered businesses, many of them small and medium enterprises who should be able to compete effectively with larger, slower organisations: another of my causes in government is to champion SMEs and ensure that entrepreneurs can operate in a transparently fair business environment.