Vos sketches out London’s digital disputes destination

Published on: 11/05/2021

The Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, gave the keynote address at London International Disputes Week’s opening day

Lessons learned from the pandemic would provide “a springboard for a truly digital justice system”, said Sir Geoffrey Vos, in his keynote address to delegates at 2021’s London International Dispute Week (LIDW), being held virtually.

Referencing his last address to LIDW, in 2019, Vos drew together three themes; first, the development of online justice systems, second, the need to improve processes in the business courts, and third, developing dedicated processes to resolve emerging issues arising from smart legal contracts.

Vos’s address focused firmly on the first, saying it was “increasingly important for the courts in England and Wales to bring processes online”, with all parties, including judges, being prepared to work, not just in a paper-free environment, but to change the very way in which disputes were resolved.

Vos was “committed to a wholly new online system for dispute resolution,” both by integrating existing processes into online environments, in using AI and smart programs to suggest suitable resolutions, while also creating single data sets to travel across the lifetime of a case, removing the need for “endless paper documents”.

What was needed, he argued, was a “harmonised online dispute resolution process for all kinds of civil, and hopefully, family and tribunal disputes, both pre-court, and once court proceedings [began]”

Taking inspiration from the work of sectoral ombudsmen, which, he said, had resolved disputes in a wide range of industries, without the need for court proceedings, his vision for the future would integrate current modes of effective pre-court dispute resolution, with a revitalised online court system.

Vos said: “We should try to make the most of what is good about the existing system, but provide what is lacking, which is cohesion and integration”, through the use of ‘blue-tick’ accreditation schemes, enabling high standards, promoting integrated ADR resolutions, that were “designed to bring about consensual resolution”, and thus supply enhanced business and consumer confidence.

That system, he said, could enable greater access to justice; it would be attractive to overseas investors, as having a “healthy and effective justice system, in which citizens and businesses can have full confidence, is one of the central tenants of the rule of law”.

Importantly, it would allow business lawyers to focus on the most complex cases, adding that “lawyers will continue to earn good fees where they add value.”

Commercial disputes would not be untouched, he said, as the current system was “grounded in the 19th century, [and] dispute resolution “remains cumbersome and expensive”, he warned. “There must be better, quicker and more economical ways to achieve a just resolution for business disputes”.

That system, he said, “will not be dependent on pleadings and statements of case, but would, instead… use decision trees and mechanisms that aim to more quickly identify the real issues that divide the parties”.

Courts would focus more on resolving disputes on a rolling basis, rather than only leading up to trial, with a much stronger focus on alternative dispute resolution, be it mediation, early neutral evaluation, or other solutions.

Vos argued “We should drop the ‘alternative’ from the name ‘alternative dispute resolution’” as the latter “was not really an alternative at all in the online space”; what mattered, he said, was “how best to facilitate speedy constant effective resolution”.

With smart contracts and the like, Vos said, “we are very much on the verge of a digital revolution in commercial life”, highlighting the importance of digital assets, such as cryptocurrencies, which called for digital dispute resolution processes.

“Lawyers, judges and arbitrators will need quickly to acquire a comprehensive understanding of how these [new] technologies work. A paper-based process will simply not be satisfactory in the new era,” Vos argued.

There would, he said, “be a cohesive online funnel with a large number of cases starting online, and being resolved by integrating ADR mechanisms”.

“New generations will demand that justice, like everything else, is delivered at proportionate cost online,” he said; while lawyers had a reputation for being slow to accept new ideas, they, together with judges and business clients, should “be ready for the changes around the corner”.