Today's report by the Civil Justice Council's online dispute resolution advisory group - chaired by Professor Richard Susskind - is potentially a very big moment in the development of the law (the full story is linked to below).
I say 'potentially' because it needs state support to become a reality, but given the government's push to go digital, there is good reason to hope that this will be forthcoming.
What the group's report represents is genuine innovation - finding a completely new way to deal with an existing problem. Well, completely new in one sense, but not in another as such systems are already available elsewhere in the world (and indeed, simply licensing one of them could be a quick and easy way to roll out ODR, rather than trying to build a system from scratch, with all the risk, delay and likely scandal that government IT projects generally attract).
As Professor Susskind said in a press briefing last Friday, in 10 years' time we may ask ourselves how we ever resolved low-value disputes any other way; Generation Y will wonder at how their parents had to gather in a wood-panelled room several months after the event to resolve their small legal matters.
The report says: "Perhaps the most fundamental question that must therefore be posed it this - is court a service or a place? Do we always need to congregate physically in a court building to resolve our differences? Or might some of our civil problems be more appropriately resolved using one of a number of online techniques?"
This quote also demonstrates that though there were 15 people on the advisory group, Professor Susskind's voice comes through the report loud and clear - he has been raising this very issue for some time.
The report is also significant in seeking to introduce a strong dispute prevention element - trying to make the court service the fence at the top of the cliff, as much as the ambulance at the bottom, as the good professor would no doubt put it - and embedding alternative dispute resolution techniques within the court process.
The report should be read in conjunction with the excellent work being done by Roger Smith (who sat on the CJC committee too) on the digital delivery of legal services to people on low incomes.
Unsurprisingly, there has a been a cautious reaction from the profession on social media - and it is hard not to have sympathy with those who contrast the bright and shiny future of ODR with the grim reality of dealing with a paper-based system creaking at the seams.
It is also too early to be calling for this or that area of practice to be excluded from ODR (and in any case the group is clear that ODR will not always be appropriate) - the point of this report is to set the direction of travel.
But is that direction ultimately leading to Robo-judges dispensing justice with the help of Big Data and clever algorithms? That is science fiction at the moment; but as Professor Susskind says, ODR is not.
It is time for a “radical and fundamental change” in the way the courts deal with low-value claims, a major report argues today, calling for the introduction of state-backed online dispute resolution (ODR) across England and Wales in 2017. The Civil Justice Council (CJC) advisory group – chaired by Professor Richard Susskind, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice – said ODR would increase access to justice through delivering a more affordable and user-friendly service, and would streamline the court process.