In an era of technology, instant communication and on-demand services, the courts continue to uphold wigs and titles from the 18th century. They provide a powerful contrast to the modern day world, but in doing so demonstrate a justice system that has failed in its entirety to modernise itself.
Let us take simple greetings as an example – we communicate through Facebook and Twitter, and use “Hi” as an introduction in the majority of conversations. The way we speak is shifting towards efficiency, informality and plain language, and if institutions want to better facilitate conversations with the people they serve, they too need to adopt this style.
Why then do the courts insist on the precise use of titles, so arcane they belong in a Dickens novel – My Lord, My Lady, Honourable court, Your Honour and so on – and respond with typed skeleton arguments and pretentious oral submissions? The communication standards set by the courts are so lofty, they create an almost impenetrable language barrier forcing most people to seek assistance in order to make any sense of them.
It’s high time the courts played catch up and started thinking about how the service they are providing could be more accessible, simple and efficient. And embracing new technologies could play a big part within that transformation.
The HMRC’s Digital Strategy outlined in 2013 is a great example of what can be achieved through such systems, as the government gradually looks to leave paperwork behind and become digital by default. When initially launched it was believed that the HMRC could save around £160m – £220m in telephone and post costs a year if an additional 29 million transactions were moved online.
So what can the legal profession do? For starters, making full use of video-conferencing or other tech services could enable judges to become far more accessible, as well as significantly reduce the time necessary to resolve a case and improve the relationship between the courts and disputing parties, increasing trust in and, ultimately, the efficiency of the courts.
In fact, if physical attendance at court were the exception as opposed to the rule, not only would this help people with busy schedules to better manage their time and presence at proceedings, but would also allow those with disabilities to play a full part in the judicial process. It’s worth bearing in mind that hosting proceedings in the courts comes with a hefty fee under the present system.
If electronic document management were to become obligatory, this too would better enable the storage and retrieval of documents, and simplify the disclosure of documents, while increasing security for sensitive cases.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg – while simplifying communication with the courts would be beneficial to all, technology used in conjunction with well thought out procedural modernisation could have a dramatic impact on the entire industry.
What if we were to do away with pleadings altogether and replace them with short written statements, delivered in plain English, outlining a person’s position? Should archaic Latin phrases not be consigned to the history books in favour of language that everyone can understand? In due course, people could even produce their pleadings on their iPads or PDAs and send them on to the court or other relevant parties.
In more and more cases, we could also encourage disputing parties to explore less formal online platforms to resolve their differences privately, ensuring that resources are used effectively for complex disputes while enabling smaller claims to be addressed quickly.
Ultimately, it all comes down to practicality – delaying and extending disputes in the name of bureaucracy only serves to distress and frustrate, so why not take advantage of the technology that now exists to simplify processes? The courts must assume a position where they make the effort to adjust to fit people’s needs and not the other way around, the first step towards this being relaxing the way they communicate.
Society has drastically evolved in recent years, yet the court process has seen insufficient development since 1816. There’s really no excuse or justification so let us listen to reason and bring our legal system up to date.