A new bill

In my earlier chapter on the Prisons and Courts Bill, I noted that the entire bill lapsed when Theresa May took her ill-fated decision to hold a general election in June 2017.

A few provisions were rescued and found their way into the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018, discussed in a previous chapter. In the late spring of 2019, finding it had parliamentary time on its hands despite — or perhaps because of — the Brexit crisis, the government quietly launched a new bill1 to reinstate a few more of the clauses that had been lost almost two years earlier.

The new bill will establish a committee to make rules for online courts and tribunals. Its provisions are based on clauses 37 to 45 of the 2017 bill, though there have been drafting improvements. As I explained earlier, the new rules committee is essential if the online court is to reach its full potential. Online proceedings currently operate under rules made for traditional courtroom procedures.

The bill applies only to specified proceedings in the civil and family courts, and in tribunals. The committee is expected to begin by concentrating  on civil and family work.

Clause 1 of the bill2 provides for procedural rules (meaning either rules of court or tribunal procedure rules) that require parties to civil, family or tribunal proceedings to use the online procedure. The rules will apply to proceedings specified in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor or, in respect of employment tribunals, the appropriate Secretary of State. Rules may provide for all or any part of the procedure for conducting proceedings online, including starting and defending proceedings and participating in hearings. There is scope for flexibility.

The online procedure will be a new digital procedure. It will use a mix of technology, conciliation and judicial resolution to provide a simple and quick dispute resolution process. The committee that will make these rules will have expertise in the law and the provision of lay advice, IT and other relevant experience.

The rule committee will aim to make sure:

  • that the practice and procedure under the rules are accessible and fair,
  • that the rules are both simple and simply expressed,
  • that disputes may be resolved quickly and efficiently under the rules, and
  • that the rules support the use of innovative methods of resolving disputes.

Although the bill sets up what’s called the “Online Procedure Rule Committee”, it does not give any sort of name to the court whose rules the committee will create. So the problem of what to call the online court has been resolved, in typically British way, by not calling it anything. It’s a bit like home renovation: the outside will look the same while the inside has been gutted.