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Report Urges Britain To Take Small-Claims Cases Online


Could the courtroom be the next place to be outsourced to the Internet? Well, that's the idea behind a new report from the Civil Justice Council in Great Britain. Small claims civil court cases - those are under 25,000 pounds or about $39,000 - would be dealt with online rather than in person. The proposal takes eBay's dispute resolution system as a kind of inspiration. Richard Susskind is the principal author of the study and he's the IT advisor to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Mr. Susskind joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD SUSSKIND: It's great to be with you.

SIMON: I gather this is a three-tiered system. How would it work?

SUSSKIND: The first tier is a facility that would allow people who have some kind of grievance to go online to try and understand better what the nature of their problem is and to identify the possible remedies that might be open to them. Now, that might dispose of the problem. But if they actually have got a grievance they need to pursue in relation to some other party, then rather than going straight to a judge, again online they'd go to the second tier, which we call the tier of online facilitators. And these are individuals who, using negotiation and mediation and generally cajoling, will get parties together and often say come on, this really doesn't require the attention of a judge. Can we not sort out in a more amicable way? But if indeed an amicable solution is not possible, then people will proceed to a judge who will decide the case online based on pleadings that are submitted electronically. And in the first instance, telephone conferencing calls if that's needed. And further down the line, that'll be done by video.

SIMON: So is the point of this to enable people who don't have enough money to pursue a claim through the courts as they stand now to try and recover what they feel or do in small claims courts?

SUSSKIND: Yes. The background in England and Wales - and it's true in most jurisdictions - is that to pursue a smallish claim, it often seems to be very time-consuming, it's complex, and it's too expensive. The amount that's expended is often more than the amount at issue. And so what we have in mind is a simplified procedure that allows people who have difficulties to resolve them quickly and move on with life rather than being embroiled in the legal justice process for longer than necessary.

SIMON: Is there any chance this'll actually happen?

SUSSKIND: Oh, it's certainly going to happen. We have very senior judges in England and Wales backing this. We have a situation where disputes are really unaffordable to many litigants and persons - we call them self-represented litigants - and so all of the signs are very positive indeed.

SIMON: Are the courts as clogged in Great Britain as they are in the United States?

SUSSKIND: The delays are one indicator of certainly a number of bottlenecks. What we're trying to do is reduce the number of cases that actually come before a physical court.

SIMON: People who don't have access to the Internet or maybe don't know how to use a computer...

SUSSKIND: Well, the statistics - and this is very interesting - around 80 percent of people in the United Kingdom are on the Internet. It's only a very small percent of people who can say that they're either not on the Internet or they don't they have someone who can help them out. Frankly, most people are excluded from the legal system on a far greater scale than are excluded from the Internet.

SIMON: At the bottom, aren't the courts clogged with cases like this because many people believe if they can just get their moment before a judge and a jury of their peers, they'll be able to win the day?

SUSSKIND: It is true, as you say, that some people may still want their day in court. They want some kind of public affirmation, vindication of their position. But our belief is if we can resolve the dispute very quickly with minimum amount of fuss allowing people to move on and at the same time offer some kind of transparency, so there will be Internet-based public record of resolutions, then that will actually supplant the need for people to assemble physically.

SIMON: And we should emphasize, you're talking about judges actually participating.

SUSSKIND: At the third tier, absolutely. And I do want to stress, these are fully-fledged judges, many of whom - or all of whom just now - will actually be sitting in physical courtrooms.

SIMON: I'm trying to imagine the ITV or BBC show "Internet Judge." Do they have to wear the wigs, too?

SUSSKIND: The interesting question there is how do we, to some extent, simulate or replicate the trappings, the authority, the gravitas of a conventional courtroom? That's something we need to think through. What wouldn't be suitable is seeing a judge sitting in his or her pajamas in the kitchen sorting out the case. I accept that entirely. But we will, I'm sure, find ways of lending weight to the process.

SIMON: Richard Susskind is the IT advisor to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Thanks very much for being with us.

SUSSKIND: Many thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.