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Could eBay help rescue Northern Ireland's cash-starved legal system with DIY divorces, compo bids and small claims?

By Deborah McAleese

Published 16/07/2015

Supporter: MLA Alastair Ross
Supporter: MLA Alastair Ross

The DUP is pushing for a radical new justice system in Northern Ireland that would see many court cases settled online 'eBay-style'.

DIY divorces, child maintenance disputes and compensation claims are just some of the cases that could be dealt with at the click of a button by online judges and internet hearings.

The proposals are aimed at assisting the rapidly increasing number of people being forced to represent themselves in the civil courts due to reductions in legal aid expenditure.

Dubbed 'eBay justice' - after eBay's dispute resolution system that settles 60 million disputes between small traders every year - the proposals would see a new branch of the court system set up to operate online.

Instead of being argued in traditional open court hearings, cases could be settled more quickly by judges sitting in front of a computer using papers received by email or, in difficult cases, through telephone conference calls.

The cyber justice system has been proposed by chairman of Stormont's Justice Committee Alastair Ross, who said that the squeeze on justice budgets means that "innovative solutions are not just desirable, but are essential if we are to produce a more cost-effective and efficient justice system".

Initially the system would deal with low value compensation cases of less than £25,000, similar to proposals currently under consideration in England and Wales.

If it proved successful, the DUP's Mr Ross would be keen to follow Dutch and Canadian justice models that also deal with cases such as divorce, child maintenance, child custody and other family matters.

Following a recent visit to the Netherlands to explore the use of the online dispute resolution model, Mr Ross said that legal aid reductions may not be popular but they were "inevitable".

He warned that legal aid cuts would lead to an increase in the number of people representing themselves in legal disputes rather than paying for a legal representative to act on their behalf.

Justice Minister David Ford has been trying to slash millions from Northern Ireland's legal aid budget which is one of the most expensive in the world relative to size of population.

Legal aid paid out in criminal and civil court proceedings is estimated at £100m a year.

"It is therefore incumbent on any legislator or policy maker to seek innovative solutions to deal with these issues and look at models being used elsewhere that could provide such an alternative to traditional ways of doing things," said Mr Ross. "One such example is how the eBay dispute resolution model, which resolves millions of disputes annually, could be adapted for use in the justice system.

"It's not as far-fetched as it may first seem. Indeed, versions of online dispute resolution are already being rolled out in the Netherlands and Canada, and here in the UK the Civil Justice Council have proposed using a similar model for civil compensation claims."

The court would have three separate tiers for those seeking redress. The first would focus on dispute avoidance - helping people diagnose and resolve issues - with the second using experienced facilitators to help parties reach agreement.

Only at the third stage would professional judges become involved, deciding cases online or with the option of phone hearings. Decisions would be as binding and enforceable as usual rulings.

"Increasingly we are all becoming used to interacting with various government agencies online, and it therefore important that within the legal sector we are not afraid to embrace technological advances and alternative models of justice," said Mr Ross. "It is my firmly held view that Northern Ireland is small and flexible enough to try new pilots and lead the way in terms of justice innovation."

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