Compensation cases set to be settled in 'online only' courts, according to top judge

Plans will see entire court cases completed over the internet
Plans will see entire court cases completed over the internet

THE day of virtual reality court has arrived, one of Northern Ireland's most senior judges has announced as he signalled the advent of completely `online courts' is imminent.

Lord Justice John Gillen, one of three Lords Justices of Appeal, is conducting a review of civil and family courts and has indicated a raft of innovative changes are on the way.

Chief amongst them are plans which will see entire court cases completed over the internet, without lawyers, witnesses or judges setting foot inside an actual courtroom.

The proposal will be to follow the example of the Netherlands and settle `small-value' claims cases online.

Lord Justice Gillen indicated the figure he has in mind for `online dispute resolution' are cases less than £10,000 and said the process will be "dealt with online, including an online judge".

Judge Gillen indicated that the review is considering family cases such as undefended divorces to be "entirely on paper or over electronic communication" and "matters dealt with by court officers rather than rather more costly judges".

"The day of virtual reality court has arrived," he told the British Irish Commercial Bar Association conference at the Bar Library's Inn of Court.

The judge said Northern Ireland must explore such options if it is to uphold the "constitutional principle of due process (which) requires us to utilise new technology.

He said a senior figure on the Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Board was "adamant" when she spoke to him that it will "become entirely online".

Lord Justice Gillen said while his review has not been driven by the current austerity regime which has seen the Department of Justice institute swingeing cuts, "we have all witnessed the greatest economic downturn since the depression of the 1930s".

"Austerity must be a spur to look at out system," he said.

"Legislation will always be with us and will always involve costs. There will be oral hearings, the oral tradition will not disappear here in Northern Ireland.

"But plenty of other areas within the whole compendium of using courts should be looked at."

He singled out in particular `case management' which currently sees judges, lawyers and experts returned to court numerous times to iron out issues before the case can even be listed for a full hearing.

Judge Gillen stressed the importance of not taking up the valuable time of expert witnesses such as doctors, paramedics, police officers who "have to leave their place of work to sit around for hours in drafty courthouses", only not necessarily to be called to give evidence that day at all.

He is proposing pre-arranging an hour when such witnesses could be booked to testify via video-link at an appointed hour from their work, citing a recent case he was involved in where a doctor in Latvia stepped out of an operating theatre in scrubs to speak to the court.

"If that can happen from Latvia, why can it not happen from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast or Altnagelvin in Derry?"