On 12 January Lord Justice Briggs published his interim report concerning the structure and operation of the civil courts. The full review is expected to be completed by the end of July 2016.
Mr Justice Briggs has identified a “clear and pressing need to create an Online Court”. This is intended to deal with claims with a value of up to £25,000. With the charming but concerning naivety of many senior judges Mr Justice Briggs suggests that this will “for the first time…give litigants effective access to justice without having to incur the disproportionate cost of using lawyers”. It is worth bearing in mind that as long ago as the 1950s the Tribunals Service was set up with the same objective – a straightforward process for the disposal of cases with the minimum of fuss and no need for lawyers. Well, as we all know, some of the most technical legal arguments and most appealed cases are those heard in and emanating from the employment tribunals.
Mr Justice Briggs identifies three stages in the process. Stage 1 is “a largely automated, inter-active (note the hyphen – nothing too modern here) online process for the identification of the issues and the provision of documentary evidence”. Stage 2 is conciliation and case management, by case officers. Stage 3 is to be resolution by judges. He envisages the court using “documents on screen, telephone, video or face to face meetings to meet the needs of each case”. I am bound to say “good luck with that” in a lawyer free environment and with the Courts’ abysmal record in installing and managing IT.
He also envisages that many functions currently undertaken by judges will be dealt with by “case officers supervised by judges”. We have seen similar changes in the tribunals and as long as there are sensible limits placed of the powers of the case workers this would in my view be a welcome development.
However, by far the most interesting proposal for readers of this blog is the suggestion that the Employment Tribunals and Employment Appeal Tribunals might be integrated into the structure of the civil courts.
Regular readers of the blog will know that I have for very many years advocated the merging of tribunals with the civil courts. There are obvious savings to be made in terms of overheads, particularly properties and staff. Perhaps some of the county courts currently earmarked for closure could be saved by taking on what are currently tribunal claims in addition to their current caseloads. There would be a great deal to be said for having common procedural rules instead of similar but occasionally significantly different rules applied in different forums. Merging the courts and tribunals would also remove the anomaly that certain claims can only be brought in employment tribunals whereas others (e.g. contract claims) can be brought in the county courts, with the obvious risk of duplication and additional costs.