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An online court: simply complex

Although I consider myself a practical person, I do tend to find that when I suffer IT problems, my first reaction is to bellow obscenities and apply the brute force and ignorance method to a misbehaving desktop. I am utterly convinced that when the machines defeat us, it won’t be because of some glorious revolution; they will simply have worn us out.

Online court proposals

All things considered, developing technology offers great opportunities. Pursuant to proposals put forth by Briggs LJ in his interim report on the civil courts structure review, we may soon see the integration of a new online court for claims with an initial value ceiling of £25,000. It is also suggested that this is to be a lawyer-free forum. In the words of Briggs LJ, at paragraph 6.1 of his report:

“It provides the opportunity to use modern IT to create for the first time a court which will enable civil disputes of modest value and complexity to be justly resolved without the incurring of the disproportionate cost of legal representation.”

The £25,000 ceiling is interesting, as lower value claims may still raise complex legal issues. It seems likely that this consideration will be factored into any final recommendations. Indeed, paragraphs 6.40-6.49 of the report contain reservations regarding low value personal injury claims and housing disrepair claims. Briggs LJ acknowledges specifically, at paragraph 6.40, that:

“Whatever ceiling is chosen… there has been considerable debate about whether eligibility… should be defined in an inclusive basis, with certain classes of work specifically excluded (opt-outs), or… confined to specific classes of cases only (opt-ins). There has also been debate about the suitability for inclusion, or exclusion, of particular types of work.”

This is an important declaration. A claim of modest value may not necessarily be a claim of modest complexity. Consider the following scenarios that demonstrate the importance of the need for full and frank discussion.

Small money, big cases

In a later episode of the sitcom Frasier, Kelsey Grammer’s psychiatric alter-ego engages in a stand-off with a parking attendant, having been charged to park in a multi-storey despite not having done so. The simple dispute was resolved when the inimitable Dr Crane pulled up and blocked the exit barrier until his allotted time expired.

In ParkingEye Ltd v Beavis, the Court of Appeal rejected a motorist’s appeal against a charge of £85 levied on him for overstaying the two hour period of free parking in a car park. As with our lovable shrink, one’s instinct would be to think this a very simple case. However, the Court of Appeal had to consider whether the charge was unenforceable at common law, as a penalty, or whether it was unfair and therefore unenforceable under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999. The case culminated in a combined appeal to the Supreme Court. In spite of the very small sum in dispute, it is safe to assume that the decision benefited from the parties having had legal representation.

Exaggerated claims

In a previous blog post, our contributor analysed the High Court decision in Lewis v Ward Hadaway, where it had been held that it was an abuse of process to seek to avoid paying the correct court fee payable on issue of a claim form by deliberately understating the value of the claim. What if the inverse scenario arose; that a litigant overestimated the value of their claim so that it remained unaffected by the £25,000 ceiling?

Late last year, the High Court made a costs order against a claimant who had accepted a Part 36 offer out of time. The matter would have been resolved sooner had the claimant not exaggerated his claim. It is therefore not beyond the realms of possibility that a litigant could, whether inadvertently or otherwise, claim for a higher amount than that to which they are entitled. This could have an impact on the proposals, as a claim for a sum over £25,000 would take it outside the jurisdiction of the online court.

Multiple claims

What if one claim is not enough? It is possible that multiple basic claims warrant joint consideration. In Dilip v Paynes Dairies Ltd, the County Court considered issues including whether two small claims should have been included on the same claim form as a fast track claim and, in any event, whether fast track costs consequences should follow. Would an online court include facilities to enable joint claims? After all, if one of the main aims is to increase efficiency, it would hardly be worthwhile doubling the caseload.

Conclusion

There is much food for thought, and these are but a few of the issues worth considering. The proposals are certainly interesting, and Practical Law Dispute Resolution will be sure to keep subscribers updated with future developments.

 

Practical Law Dispute Resolution Jack Meek

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