The Online Court Hackathon


The Lord Chief Justice at the Hackathon

Today I joined the Online Court Hackathon, master-minded by my friend Richard Susskind, for its final hour.  For 23 hours 200 IT enthusiasts, divided up into teams, had been working away through the heat of the day, through the twilight hours, through the long night watches and long past rosy-fingered dawn to prepare their contributions and compete for the awards that would be available at the end of the event.  I arrived in time to watch short presentations from the handful who had been picked out for special commendation by the team of judges which included three serving High Court Judges. Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice, who has been the driving force – perhaps, the demonic inspiration – behind the current £1 billion Court modernisation project, presented the awards at the end of the event.

I was there because I was the third president of the Society of Computers and Law, in the years between 1992 and 2001 when we used to bang the drum loudly for the kind of changes that are now at long, long last beginning to take shape[1].  I was delighted to see that my predecessor, Sir Brian Neill, president through the 1980s and now fast approaching his 94th birthday, was also there, and we shared a taxi back afterwards. We reminisced about the days when we would be lucky if we attracted seven people to a meeting to discuss possible uses of applied technology in support of the courts. This week’s event was heavily over-subscribed, and 200 would-be participants had to be turned away.

The nature of the event can be gleaned from the Legal Geek website:

Half of London’s top 20 law firms along with leading UK universities are competing in the world’s first online courts hackathon this weekend with teams flying in from as far away as India and Australia. There were around 400 applicants for the event, which begins at noon on Saturday and ends at noon on Sunday with a closing address by the Lord Chief Justice.

The Hackathon is being jointly staged by the Society for Computers and Law, Legal Geek, the Judiciary of England and Wales, and HM Courts & Tribunals Service. It is being hosted in London at the University of Law.

What are online courts?

The first generation of online courts will involve judges deciding cases on the basis of evidence and argument submitted electronically. Their introduction in England and Wales (for civil, family, and tribunal disputes) will be one of the most significant reforms to the justice system in the past two centuries. Supported by both the Government and the Judiciary, the motivation behind online courts is to provide greater access to justice in a more cost efficient way than the conventional court system. While the government is leading the transformation (and is investing around £1 billion in modernising the courts), it is recognised that the design of the online courts would benefit from the input of the wider communities of lawyers, court users, law students, and technologists.

What will happen at the hackathon?

The idea of the Hackathon is to bring these communities together over a 24-hour period and in a friendly and yet competitive spirit, to invite teams to come up with designs, solutions, systems, and technologies for various parts of the online court. Participants will be invited to design various tools to support online courts – for example, tools to help litigants structure their legal arguments, organise their documents, negotiate settlements without advisers, improve access to legal advice as well as systems that will promote open justice and even machine learning solutions that will help analyse all the data generated by the online courts. Prizes will be awarded for the best ideas. Pizzas and coffee will be consumed in great quantities while the teams work through the night.

Professor Richard Susskind OBE, President of the Society of Computers and Law and one of the online courts pioneers:

“Online courts are likely to be the most significant development in our court system since the nineteenth century, enabling far greater and affordable access to justice. We are bowled over by the response to the Hackathon.”

Jimmy Vestbirk, founder of Legal Geek:

“We believe online courts are the perfect application of technology to improve access to justice. Legal Geek, the world’s largest community of LawTech startups, is proud to co-host a hackathon which could generate ideas to shape the future of our court system. This is a once in a life time opportunity for students, coders, designers, legal professionals and innovators to shape the future of online courts.”

Susan Acland-Hood, CEO of HM Courts and Tribunals said:

“We want to take the best justice system in the world and improve it though new technology and modern ways of working. Our existing plans for online courts will help people resolve disputes quickly in ways that suit them but we also want to work with others who can bring us new ideas. The excellent teams competing in this event will be contributing to something that really matters – the delivery of a better justice system for the future.”

In a masterly lecture last month the Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice (Sir Terence Etherton) helpfully brought together with great clarity into one place many of the different strands that underpin the court modernisation initiative.  Interested readers would do well to read his lecture on “The Civil Court and the Future”.  For present purposes, it is enough to reproduce some of his closing remarks:

How will the reforms work – design issues

It will be readily apparent that the nature of the intended reform is very wide-ranging. Digitisation and reform generally would raise questions concerning implementation on their own. The development of the Online Solutions Court inevitably raises questions of its own. In this final part of my lecture I want to look at some of those questions.

The first two issues relate to digital design and operation. The obvious point that could be made against digitisation is that past experience of public IT projects is not auspicious. That might be true if we were to ignore the lessons from the past. The judiciary and HMCTS, who are working closely together across the reform programme as a whole, are learning from the past. Pilot projects and prototypes are being designed and tested. The Civil Money Claims Project, which is intended to deliver the new processes that will lie at the heart of a “digital by design and by default” online court, is under way. Following intensive research and user feedback, it will enter a test phase later this year with invited users. The pilot will apply to claims below £10,000.

The second design issue arises from recent experience in The Netherlands, and is focused on the Online Solutions Court. One of the influences that lay behind the Civil Courts Structure Review’s online court proposals was a form of online dispute resolution operated in The Netherlands called The Rechtwijzer. It was an online ADR platform for separating couples, which would help them resolve issues concerning asset distribution etc. It was developed as a collaborative project by the Dutch Legal Aid Board, Modria, a US company which designs and builds ODR platforms, and The Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law. Following a three-year collaboration, the decision was recently taken to discontinue the project. The basis of that decision appears to be limited take-up. As a model for the Online Solutions Court, it might be thought that the failure of the Rechtwijzer does not augur well.

We should, however, be cautious in drawing conclusions here. There is a fundamental difference between the Online Solutions Court and the Rechtwijzer. Our approach is to develop a court, which incorporates ODR into its processes, rather than to develop an ODR platform which sits outside of the court system. The Rechtwijzer’s failure should properly be seen as more a consequence of individuals preferring the courts to resolve their disputes than their rejection of online processes. The low user uptake of its consensual settlement mechanism will not apply to our court, as all cases within the Online Solutions Court will be subject to its three-stage process. Settlement and adjudication will not operate within rival systems, but as complementary mechanisms within an holistic system. We are seeking to enhance our civil court, not create an online alternative to it. As such the question of preference that undermined take-up in The Netherlands is unlikely to be replicated here.

I have never been starry-eyed about what might be achievable, and some of the more visionary applications of Artificial Intelligence we witnessed this morning leave the sceptic/ inquirer after knowledge with a lot of unanswered questions.  If you shovel masses of judgments into the same mixing-pot, how does it separate the wheat from the chaff – the Bingham or the Atkin in one corner from the jungle-judge doing his incompetent best in the other? Perhaps there is a way of winnowing out the outliers, but I would have no idea of how it could be done.

This is why the champions of this project are so wise to move forward in small bite-size chunks.  I understand that this autumn’s tightly monitored voluntary initiative will be trialling the first of the three stages of Lord Justice Briggs’s vision: how can the lay litigant sitting in an armchair at home use the software to help him or her to produce and file a coherent claim for some relatively simple cause of action – not only a claim for debt but also a simple claim in respect of shoddy goods or leaking pipes?  And how can the other side to the dispute articulate what is required in a coherent defence with the help of the software?  When I served on the Courts Modernisation Board 15 years ago we launched the award-winning money-claims online system, starting with simple online money claims up to £100,000, and in due course providing a facility for the debtor to file a defence online – at which stage everything had to be printed out and posted to the appropriate local county court.

What is happening now is the logical extension of all this. It was good to see the senior judiciary very strongly represented, and the excellent new chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service was also there, as well as the Lord Chief Justice.  But what stood out was the tireless enthusiasm of the modern-day descendants of the Magnificent Seven who used to attend IT & Law meetings long ago, turning out in such force and deploying their sometimes extraordinary skills in devising possible practical solutions against the day when the current online court experiment moves beyond its initial pilot phase.

As the veteran of over 200 mediations, I was fascinated by the presentation of an online mediation system, with the mediator using a private chat facility to edge each side closer to a consensual settlement as more documents were filed on the site which strengthened the case of one side or the other. And I was gob-smacked by the pioneers of frontier towns (masquerading as City law firms) who were supremely confident that AI could achieve far more than purblind pygmies like me can at present appreciate.  “There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio…”

It was a thrilling experience. So long as the project team is allowed to invest in quality, and not merely quantity, when seeking those who will make this project work, the future looks cautiously promising.

But there was one feature which would comfort sceptics from the “it will never work” brigade. On one of the hotter days (and nights) of the summer the air conditioning broke down.


[1] Some of my writings and of my lamentations from that period can be seen on the section of this blogsite called “IT and the Law.”


One thought on “The Online Court Hackathon

  1. The IT Countrey Justice


    Envy and I are strangers to one another but I do envy you the opportunity to have gone along to what must have been an amazing event.

    Thanks for the post and, as ever, for your thoughts and insights.

    Kind regards

    David Harvey


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