Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have launched a £1bn UK courts system reform programme involving over 50 projects to change and improve our court and tribunal services. The aim of this programme is to make the legal services just, proportionate and accessible for everyone. It is hoped that by bringing in new technology and improving digital court services and thus improving the efficiency and efficacy of the courts, the programme will deliver significant savings, and maintain the competitiveness of the UK as a legal services hub.
The programme is an important first step in the modernisation of the civil justice system. There are numerous different elements to the reforms including a vision for claims worth up to £25,000 to be resolved in an online court, including the availability of a negotiations and settlement tool.
The court reform programme was expected to be completed by 2022 (with some areas expected to be ready as early as 2020-2021). However HMCTS have recently announced that it seeks to extend the completion deadline meaning that the proposed completion date will be a year later, in 2023. This should allow more time to develop some of the shared systems sitting behind the next set of online services.
There are however a number of services which have already been introduced. Below are some of the most recent developments of the courts reform programme.
A new electronic filing and case management system CE-File has already been introduced in the Business and Property Courts in London, which requires professional users to file documents at court electronically and pay court fees online. Earlier this year the system was introduced on an optional basis in the Queen’s Bench Division. From 30 April 2019, all professional users will be required to issue all new court proceedings in the Business and Property Courts (both in London and the regions) electronically, using CE-File. The system will enable court staff and professional court users to pass work between teams or colleagues digitally, and aims to reduce the delay caused by paper files being passed around the building or offices.
Online Civil Money Claims
Users (including non-professional users, i.e. individuals and small businesses) can already submit a money claim online for a fixed sum of money up to £100,000 against up to two defendants who reside in England or Wales, and obtain a County Court judgment against the defendant(s) if the claim is undisputed.
A new online service has been introduced where users (with a few limited exceptions) can submit a County Court claim for up to £10,000 (with the exclusion of housing disrepair or personal injury) against a maximum of one defendant who must reside in England or Wales. This service can be used for most low value contractual consumer problems, ranging from unfairly issued parking tickets to a claim for faulty goods. The new pilot allows easier submission of County Court claims that would otherwise fall within the small claims track, allows for the settling of the dispute online, and recommends mediation services.
In some cases a judge may decide that a case cannot be heard as a small claim if the case is believed to be too complex.
Some of the other areas where online court products have been introduced are:
- Court of Protection – a digital system enabling users to initiate and manage their cases online.
- Possession – the shorthold tenancy possession claim process will be made digital, with an interim step being automation of administrative processes.
- Adoption – provision of an end-to-end process for adoption.
- Divorce – an online service for filing applications for divorce, nullity or judicial separation of marriage or civil partnerships, as well as online payment of fees.
- Probate – a new Probate Online Service has been launched to improve and simplify the process for users applying for a grant of probate in non-contentious cases.
- Employment - the Employment Tribunal Reform project involves a combination of the tribunals authorisation and the civil money claims models to develop a service that can adapt to the user needs, including the ability to resolve cases online and by video.
- Common Platform - a single shared system between the police, HMCTS and Crown Prosecution Service that is accessible by users across the criminal justice system.
- Tax – a new service allowing people to submit tax appeals online, as well as a pilot of fully-video hearings in the tax tribunals.
Two new Courts and Tribunals Service Centres were also opened in Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent on 28 January 2019. In these Centres, several justice services have been consolidated such as case processing, the issuing of orders from courts and tribunals, and dealing with queries from the public.
The reforms programme consists of two phases. The first phase focused on testing the basics, and we are currently in the second phase comprising 23 projects. The aim of the second phase is to make these first services available to more people.
According to the HMCTS update report published in January 2019 in response to the Public Accounts Committee recommendations, 20 of the 23 projects of phase 2 have now been launched either as private or public beta, with the three outstanding ones being Infrastructure and Enabling (a booking system with scheduling and listing tools), the Civil Enforcement service and the digital service for handling Single Justice Service cases for DVLA.
Civil Enforcement service for warrants and writs has been rescheduled to enable technical resources, and a review of the end to end process for civil customers is currently being completed.
It is of course inevitable that for a project of this scale there will be hurdles to cross, such as having sufficient online infrastructure and reliable connections (e.g. during the testing of virtual online hearings). However, significant steps are now being made to bring the court system up to date and fit for the 21st century.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.