“… snowdrifts of paper held in place by delicate pink ribbons”

On 23 June 2015 Michael Gove, the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, gave his first speech since his appointment following the general election in May. Its prosaic title “What does a one nation justice policy look like?” underplays both the eloquence of his defence of the rule of law and the potential ambit of reforms to deliver civil justice online.

The first of these may be a shrewd move by Mr Gove to make friends in the legal sector at an early stage in his tenure. The second may mark the start of a serious move towards virtual delivery of significant parts of civil dispute resolution, thus avoiding the snowdrifts of paper and pink ribbons.

The second part of Mr Gove’s speech was headed “Reforming Civil Justice”. He used the word “online” in all but one of seven paragraphs. He seemed to take deliberate care to praise the judiciary for its forward thinking – perhaps further evidence of his attempts to make friends early on? – about the methods of delivery of justice. He referred specifically to “pioneering work the judiciary have commissioned from reformers like Professor Richard Susskind” in developing ideas about how far more civil justice could be delivered online. The Susskind report was published earlier this year under the auspices of the Civil Justice Council and made a strong case for something called HMOC – HM Online Court. HMOC was aimed at broadening access to justice and resolving disputes more easily, quickly and cheaply. As envisaged in the CJC report, it would function at three levels:

  • Online evaluation
  • Online facilitation
  • Online judicial determination

We would certainly expect to see Government-led consultation on the detail and on the costs and benefits before proposals such as HMOC are taken forward. Mr Gove’s recent speech must surely add a great deal of momentum to these ideas.

It remains to be seen if his wide-ranging thoughts about online civil justice stretch to matters such as the introduction of new claims notification portals and/or the expansion of the MedCo portal, both of which have been recently advocated by the Association of British Insurers.

Although Mr Gove delivered a panegyric to the rule of law and praised judicial independence and foresight, he is – as well as being Lord Chancellor – a Secretary of State in charge of a spending Government Department that faces further cuts in its funding. It is therefore noteworthy that he talked of reducing our dependence on “an ageing and ailing court estate” which costs around a third of the budget for courts and tribunals. This seems quite a thinly-coded way of referring to possible court closures; something which might be accelerated if HMOC does take off. In a similar vein, he referred to a probable expansion of pro bono legal services, stating that “When it comes to investing in access to justice then it is clear to me that it is fairer to ask our most successful legal professionals to contribute a little more rather than taking more in tax from someone on the minimum wage.”

In an interview with Total Politics last December, former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls admitted to a particular fondness for the 1965 film “The Sound of Music”. One might well wonder if that film is also one of Michael Gove’s ‘favourite things’, given that his snowdrifts of paper held in place by delicate pink ribbons” seems to bring to mind Dame Julie Andrews’s “brown paper packages tied up with string”.

About the Author

akAlistair Kinley is BLM’s Director of Policy & Government Affairs.

Alistair is responsible for BLM’s engagement with government departments and regulators on policy and public affairs issues and consultations affecting the firm and its customers. He coordinated BLM’s market-facing activities in connection with the Insurance Act 2015 and the consultations which preceded its publication and introduction in Parliament.

He is a member of the Civil Justice Council (CJC), a regular speaker and experienced commentator on legal and procedural reforms and was a contributing editor to the Law Society’s Litigation Funding Handbook (September 2014).

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