Internet is key in the battle for legal access

A new government paper on civil justice reforms challenges philosophy as well as IT methodology, writes Elizabeth Davidson.

GEOFF Hoon is the first to admit that the Government's new 15-year strategy for civil justice is based on ignorance.

Not that it is the Government's fault. Predicting the capabilities of tomorrow's inventions is difficult without a crystal ball, and Geoff Hoon, the minister of state at the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD), has no more chance than Mystic Meg of guessing what will be invented next.

So when Hoon launched the Government consultation paper "Civil Justice – Resolving and Avoiding Disputes in the Information Age" earlier this month, he acknowledged the difficulties of devising a long-term IT strategy and stressed the need for feedback from the profession.

The paper is wide-ranging, bravely radical and would have seemed like science fiction as recently as 10 years ago.

Drawing heavily on the predictions outlined in Richard Susskind's book The Future of Law, Hoon anticipates the end of the generalist lawyer, with legal work being divided into two categories.

Firstly, he says lawyers will deal directly with only the high value complex work at the top end of the market, although they will be involved in the creation of Internet-based legal guidance products for the remainder of the work.

Secondly, he believes routine chores will be automated without the need for the client to meet the lawyer, and legal advice will be offered over the Internet for problems not currently addressed by traditional legal services.

The vigorous technological shake-up which is about to hit the profession is comparable to the meteorite millions of years ago which devastated the dinosaurs.

Debate about the future is therefore crucial and the government paper is a welcome attempt to tackle the ignorance which still lurks within the profession.

The sophisticated technology available today requires the legal profession to examine the basics tenets of justice. It is a jurisprudence professor's dream.

Like Lord Woolf's Access to Justice report, the consultation paper challenges conventions which have long been taken for granted by a profession rooted in tradition.

It questions whether the adversarial system is the best method for resolving disputes, whether every case that can be reported should be reported and whether lawyers ought to charge by the hour or by value of service. It also asks whether government responsibility is the province of one department, whether only legally trained individuals can understand formal legal sources, and whether the civil and criminal justice systems ought to be administered together.

The paper's authors even pay heed to the changing "structures of society", claiming: "We are reworking our old ideas of personal and family identity; of how people relate to each other personally, socially, commercially and professionally; of what the interplay is between state, in- dividuals, groups of people, and other states [which] will have great impact on the sort of cases people bring, and thus on the processes of civil justice."

The paper also predicts that courtroom drama may become a thing of the past. It says virtual hearings – by video conferencing – could be the norm in the future, with greater communication between disputing parties halting the escalation of many disputes.

It is also clear from the paper that the Internet – soon to be delivered via television – will be key to the provision of the Government's long-vaunted community legal service. The paper proposes setting up a Web site which would operate as a "virtual advice" worker, giving initial advice to anyone with a legal problem, and asks who should be responsible for developing the site, and how quality should be maintained.

The paper was devised by a team of nine experts from the computer and legal industries, including Susskind. The Government's strategy is to be formalised in April and responses to the paper are due by 18 December. It can be found at http://www.open.gov.uk/lcd.

More broadly, the Government has already set itself a target – that, by the year 2002, at least a quarter of its own dealings with the public will be "capable of being delivered electronically".

One crucial question, of course, is who is going to pay for all of this? The Government admits in the paper that it aims to recover the cost of new technology through greater income from court fees, but that private investment will also play a large part.

In the meantime, a series of technology-related pilots will be the most immediate events on the lawyer's horizon. The paper's authors anticipate the "extensive use" of pilots and advise the collaboration of various professional bodies and agencies to achieve what may currently seem to many a rather hazy futuristic vision.

One thing is clear about the future, however. It is vital that the profession sits up, takes note, and says something about the changes which are soon to hit it.