Online courts are open for business

From China and Canada to the UK and Ireland, online courts are open and they’re ready to hear you now.

Statue of Justice on top of Old Bailey

On August 18th, the “world’s first internet court” heard its very first case. Located in the city of Hangzhou, China, the court uses technology like face recognition, Speech Recognition Systems, and artificial intelligence to draft judgments — and generally embraces law like it’s 2017 and not 1917. The court hears cases regarding online shopping, microfinance loans, copyright infringement, product liability and related issues.

The court works like this: “The whole process from beginning to end is done through the internet. The judge presiding over the cases is stationed in a Hangzhou-based courtroom where members of the public can watch a projection of the video feed. A computer program transcribes the trial. Anyone wanting to submit a case can file all required petitions and necessary documents online where they can also pay any fees. Court notifications are delivered online and anyone without a computer can use terminals made available at the courthouse.” (The Verge)

“In the end, courts are moving in this direction because billions of us are already here.”

Hangzhou, China

Hangzhou, which is roughly an hour outside Shanghai, is often called China’s e-commerce capital because it’s “home to companies like Alibaba and NetEase, as well as China’s national-level cross-border e-commerce pilot zone, which leads efforts to set standards for procedures and supervision of e-commerce transactions.” Also according to The Verge, “As per China civil procedure law, suits against companies must be handled in the city where the company principally operates or has registered its address, and Hangzhou courts have seen a dramatic increase in e-commerce cases over the past few years, from 600 in 2013 to over 10,000 in 2016.”

If you ignore the less than perfect English, you will see via the court’s website that you can file a claim in five minutes and that litigation is no longer a hassle. Judging by its first ever case, that seems to be true. Writes Mallory Locklear in engadget, “Today’s copyright infringement case was between a novelist and a web company that offered her novel to online subscribers without her permission, and everyone met via video chat. The judge and both sets of legal agents connected through the web from different parts of the country and the whole thing took around 30 minutes to conclude.” Says Wang Jiangqiao, the court’s vice-president: “The internet court breaks geographic boundaries and greatly saves time in traditional hearings.” (BBC)

Although billed as the “world’s first,” China’s online court is not actually first. A better claimant for that distinction is British Columbia, Canada which we wrote about back in March. (ROSS). When it comes to embracing technology, the Canadian province of British Columbia has set a new bar for access to justice and it’s pretty high: As of June 1, 2017, for the first time ever, anywhere, small claims disputes have heard and resolved entirely online. According to BC Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, via CHEK news, “It is the world’s first online dispute resolution tribunal which is tied in with the public justice system.” Any civil small claim dispute up to $5,000 is adjudicated by BC’s Civil Resolution Tribunal via the internet.

And now the UK is testing its own online court: “The pilot — the first in a series planned over the next three years — will begin in a “private beta” phase, in which the service will be available to eligible users via invitation only. In January 2018 this phase will transition to “public beta” — in which it will be opened up to all court users with an appropriate claim.” (legalfutures). The court hears claims for under £10,000.

Neil Rose further explains how this pilot project works: “… the three stages of the online court would be: [One] An automated online triage stage designed to help LiPs articulate their claim in a form which the court can resolve, and to upload their key documents and evidence; [Two] A conciliation stage, handled by a case officer; and [Three], a determination stage, where those disputed cases which cannot be settled are determined by a judge, by whichever of a face-to-face trial, video or telephone hearing or determination on the documents is the most appropriate.”

As reported in legalfutures, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, said ‘[the online court] should be seen as a template for securing now and over time in the future the critical object of greater access to justice.’” The court will operate in a “problem-solving” way, he explained.

And on September 26th, it was announced that much of the Supreme Court of Ireland’s work will be moving online. “Under the proposed scheme, all applications for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, including the filing of documents and the delivery of decisions, will take place online. It is hoped this will be the first step in bringing huge amounts of the appeal process, at all levels, out of the courtrooms and onto the internet.” (Irish Times)

Dubin, Ireland

But the idea of an online court is not without criticism. There are concerns about access to justice: Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice said in The Guardian: “The move to online and virtual justice threatens to significantly increase the number of unrepresented defendants, to further discriminate against vulnerable defendants, to inhibit the relationship between defence lawyers and their clients, and to make justice less open.” It is believed that online courts also makes it too easy for people to plead guilty.

Dr. Catrina Denvir, director of the Legal Innovation Centre at the University of Ulster, equates online courts with eBay’s dispute resolution service. She also believes research shows how important it is that multiple ways to solve disputes be maintained — otherwise, many people will be left out: “This research (see here for a start) provides us with key insights into the likely ramifications of digital delivery, particularly in instances where that delivery restricts access to services via other modes.” (legalfutures)

Adding, “These issues only serve to remind us that the challenge of securing access to justice cannot be solved by locking coders in a room for 24 hours with pizza and energy drinks, try as the courts and judiciary might.” Some lawyers are also unhappy about this new direction because the goal is to “make the whole process navigable by litigants with no, or greatly reduced, assistance from lawyers.” (Promediate)

In the end, courts are moving in this direction because billions of us are already here. Many of us have relied on the internet for our businesses (and pastimes) for decades now and that means 1. This is how much of the world operates and court procedures should reflect that and 2. Many “modern” legal issues have arisen — online shopping disputes, data scraping, revenge-porn, etc. — and we need progressive court systems to deal with these problems. Hopefully, other countries will follow suit.

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