Continuous online resolution offers an entirely new route to justice. Unlike services such as small money claims, divorce and probate — where the main change is to replace paper forms with online applications — this is a wholly new service designed for the digital environment.
People who need help with daily activities because of a long-term illness or disability may now claim a recurring personal independence payment from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Those who are turned down after a reconsideration may appeal to the Social Security and Child Support Tribunal. That appeal can already be launched online and around 3,300 were lodged in the last sic months of 2018. Although some appeals may be decided on the papers, most now go to an oral hearing followed by a written decision.
Though tribunal members try to put users at their ease, most appellants find the prospect of an oral hearing intimidating. They have to turn up in person and wait for their appeal to be called on. The hearing may be over in moments if they have the doctor’s letter that the tribunal had requested. Or it may be inconclusive if the appellant doesn’t have the necessary information readily available.
What’s now being piloted is a form of early neutral evaluation. Tribunal members will assess each appeal and consider whether further evidence is needed. That can be posted in or uploaded using a mobile phone.
Next, the tribunal will issue a reasoned view of the case. The appellant can then accept this or reject it — as can the DWP. Either party can still insist on an oral hearing, but this is likely to be rare. Around two-thirds of the appeals in personal independence payment cases are currently successful, mainly because appellants clarify their evidence (“when I said I played football regularly, I meant table football”).
This appeal process is being piloted using real appellants. But the next stage, planned for later in 2019, is even more innovative.
Judge John Aitken, president of the social entitlement chamber of the First Tier Tribunal, referred to it as a “forum”1 — though others will recognise it as a glorified WhatsApp group. Submissions and documents can be posted on the case file by the appellant and the DWP. Tribunal members can ask questions online. Unlike an oral hearing, the parties and tribunal members won’t need to be in the same place. Unlike a video hearing, they won’t need to take part at the same time.
Continuous online resolution, as it’s called, has huge advantages. The appellant has enough time to look up the details needed by the tribunal and — perhaps with the help of a relative or friend — upload them from home in the evening. A DWP official, who would not normally trouble to attend the hearing, will see those details at work the next morning. Once that information has been considered, the DWP may concede the appeal. If not, officials will soon learn how much weight the tribunal attaches to evidence and arguments of this nature.
This system is highly attractive to the tribunal members, many of whom sit part-time. A medically qualified member could log on from home over the weekend and assess the evidence uploaded in a batch of cases. Each written comment on the case — whether made by the parties or by the tribunal — will be saved like an email trail. It will be invaluable in the event of an appeal. The record should also be available for inspection by press and public.
A second innovation from the tribunals service is a new online asylum process which, like continuous online resolution, will need new rules and practice directions to govern the process. All the evidence will be submitted at the outset. Case officers will instruct parties to identify issues, upload evidence and prepare document bundles in a way that is similar to the US concept of case supervisors. The process will allow asylum seekers to take part from outside the UK, using a significantly simplified and streamlined procedure. “When a judge gets a case it will be ready for a decision,” said Sir Ernest Ryder, senior president of tribunals. “The lawyers’ role will be enhanced, front-loaded and therefore potentially paid for at an earlier stage.”2