What chance of justice from an online court?

The government is developing plans to move many court hearings online. Dave Renton argues that that the proposals mean privatisation, job losses and exclusion from justice.

Laptop screen showing image of justice

While it is easy to think of Theresa May’s government as weak and incapable of changing people’s lives for the worse, major projects of privatisation are continuing, often with barely any comment in the press. One of these is the proposal that by 2020 almost all civil claims and some tribunal and criminal cases will be heard in online courts.

An online court will be different from a present court hearing in two key ways:

First – at present, all cases are resolved at a hearing, with both the claimant/prosecutor and the defendant in the same room. In future, many cases will be determined by a judge, on reading the papers, without a hearing. In the minority of cases where a hearing is found to be necessary, there will be a presumption that the hearing can be conducted remotely, probably by a video link.

Second – at present, all cases begin with formal stages of issuing a case, collecting documents and evidence. In an online court, these will be done with the help of a programme, powered by a sophisticated algorithm (not yet invented) which will enable the parties to say what their case is and set out all the documents on which they rely.

For anyone “born digital” – those younger people who can’t remember a time before the internet – there will be something appealing about the idea of using computers to break through the obstacles to justice. The law at the moment is expensive, it excludes people and it reaches bad outcomes. Part of the way that the online courts are being designed is through “hackathon” days where programmers volunteer their skills and experience. No-one ever says directly that the result will be better or cheaper justice, but no doubt the volunteers tell themselves that will be the outcome. To that extent, this proposal is a good example of neoliberalism from below.

But in order to fund the design of the algorithm, a programme of court closures will take place. This is privatisation: our shared resource, the court buildings, is being traded for the private companies’ time in designing the algorithm. It is also a redundancy plan: court workers will be dismissed, as the number of courts are reduced. Jobs at free charity services like Citizens Advice and law centres will go as the government inevitably goes on to find that legal aid is no longer needed.

What is more, a large part of what the law does is choosing between two differing accounts of what happened, based to some extent on quite subtle changes of demeanour or body language. Replacing that with no hearings, or hearings by video link, offends against the principle of justice. We’re a long way from a future where online courts deal with cases as high profile as murder, where a defendant is asked “Did you kill him?” and all the judge can see is a fuzzy blob of pixels downloaded via a video stream. But an unjust way of deciding cases doesn’t become any less unjust when the potential punishment is less than life, or the amount of money involved is “only” a year’s wages.

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