New master of the rolls promises civil justice shake-up

The incoming master of the rolls has vowed to ‘radically rethink’ civil justice when he takes the reins next year, arguing that the UK needs an online system to resolve business disputes to attract international parties.

Sir Geoffrey Vos told the annual bar conference that international commerce ‘will be looking for dispute resolution mechanisms that are fit for new business methods’ which involve blockchain, cyber assets and artificial intelligence. He added that the UK legal community ‘needs to be ambitious in terms of digitalisation if it is to retain and enhance its status’.

‘I hope that in my new role as head of civil justice I will be able to take a holistic look at civil justice...looking from one end at the 60 million disputes resolved annually by artificial intelligence on eBay, to the other end at the lengthy face-to-face trials that go on in the Rolls Building,’ he said.

‘I've no doubt that we need an online system that creates a single data record and is directed at identifying and resolving the real issues that divide the parties. Mediated interventions must be integrated into the process so that [alternative dispute resolution] is not seen as a voluntary add-on.’

Sir Geoffrey, who currently serves as chancellor of the High Court, will take over from Sir Terence Etherton on 11 January 2021, following the latter’s retirement.

Asked whether technology would result in a ‘thinning out’ of lawyers and judges, Vos said ‘absolutely not’.

‘People are going to need legal advice more than ever in a more complex, technologically enabled world. The challenge for the lawyers here is to stay ahead of the game - and for the judges by the way.’

He added that ‘big name reforms’ to civil justice – such as Lord Woolf’s changes to civil procedure rules in the 1990s – are no longer suitable because ‘life is moving too fast’.

‘We need… to set a direction of travel which will make our legal system perfect for the technological changes that are to come, not just for the ones that have already happened,’ he said.

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