News Item

June 2021

Appropriate foundation key to building successful online court system

Online courts may hold the key to breaking barriers to justice, but the basics need to be right first, a University of Otago academic argues.
In a new report, co-funded through the New Zealand Law Foundation’s Information Law & Policy Project (ILAPP), Otago and University of Waikato researchers describe how important it is to get the design of online filing systems correct.

Lead author Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin, Co-Director of the Otago Centre for Law and Society, says the design of online forms for starting a proceeding is essential if online courts are to be accessible without a lawyer.

“Without well-designed forms the public will not be able to effectively engage, or coherently tell their story to the court and the promises of online courts will be lost,” she says.

Dr Toy-Cronin describes online courts as the new frontier of justice delivery. “They hold the promise of a modern, cost-effective, accessible, and efficient court system.”

The pandemic has advanced online courts programmes in many countries, as they have been forced to shift online to protect public health. Dr Toy-Cronin has been advocating for more, free, Online Legal Information and Self-Help (Olish) in New Zealand.

For the public, the benefits of Olish are four-fold: cost reduction (avoiding legal fees); reduced time to resolution; increased engagement; fewer barriers to access.

Online courts would reduce costs for Government by reducing the need for state sponsored subsidies to lawyers; increasing access to justice by reducing barriers of cost, inconvenience and fear; and protecting public health by enabling remote filing and processing of court files.

“Online filing for dispute resolution systems in both the court and tribunal setting offers significant benefits for all stakeholders. For these benefits to be realised, the systems need to be designed with a deep understanding of the users.”

Even if a full online courts programme, which includes video conferencing, is not implemented, filing legal claims online offers the potential for considerable increases in efficiency and accuracy of court records, costs savings for both the Government and disputants, and greater accessibility.

The authors caution against making all forms ‘digital by default’, arguing for genuine off-line alternatives. This acknowledges those who are digitally excluded, or who lack legal capability to engage with an online court form.

They also raise the issue of court documents containing forms of ‘nudging’ (built in incentives and disincentives which alter user behaviour), alongside the need for them to prompt users to provide the detail a legal narrative requires.

“The design of an online court form sounds like a simple exercise but in fact raises difficult and important issues about access to justice and the role of the courts.

“With the safeguards of a strong user-focus and judicial engagement, online court forms could provide greater physical and financial access for many disputants, and better data about our justice system to support ongoing design improvements and cost savings for Government.

“Most importantly, such safeguards will help ensure that courts deliver consistent and equal justice to all disputants, whether they seek it online or offline,” Dr Toy-Cronin says.

Full report in PDF – 30 pages

Law Foundation committed funding of up to $101,161 towards this research project through its Information Law and Policy Project.