Speech by Lord Burnett of Maldon, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales: The cutting edge of digital reform

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In my fourteen months as Lord Chief Justice I have been impressed by the dedication of so many people to considering how we can improve the delivery of justice through the development of online courts and digital processes. Judges are working hard and effectively with officials to ensure that what we do in this jurisdiction works and achieves the ends to which I have referred. It is not every generation that is called upon to question the fundamentals of their systems, of their ways of working. The implications for all of us of the digital revolution are all too apparent. Justice cannot be immune from them. It is as well that we have not adopted the position of the proverbial ostrich.

When large numbers of individuals and particularly those on low incomes do not have effective access to our justice systems we simply cannot adopt such an approach. We cannot ignore the complexity of too much of what we do or the trouble and expense associated with it for litigants. That is a complaint that has echoed down the ages. Yet the sensible use of technology may provide enduring solutions to these problems.

Many lawyers and judges may instinctively cavil at the comparison. But contrast the dispute resolution system provided by eBay, which resolves 60 million disputes per year. It is quick, inexpensive and effective. The courts are not in direct competition with contractual dispute resolution mechanisms of this sort – and they will proliferate across the digital world – but we should not be frightened of learning from them. We should learn also from more sophisticated organisations such as the Financial Ombudsman Service, which resolves hundreds of thousands of complaints a year. We should perhaps remember that the overwhelming majority of civil claims are for small sums, important though they are to the litigants, and that litigants want and expect a swift and inexpensive answer. If the courts cannot provide that, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms will develop which can. And we owe it to those who challenge government decisions in tribunals to make the task as simple as we can, in practical and procedural terms, and provide answers swiftly.

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