NI: Family Bar Association warns that proposed online arbitration system for NI would require ‘strong safeguards’

DUP MLA Alastair Ross

An online dispute resolution system, which is currently being used to settle legal cases in Holland and British Columbia in Canada, could be introduced in Northern Ireland.

The arbitration system, similar to that used by on-line retailer eBay, could be used for some divorces and low value compensation cases of less than £25,000.

The chairman of the justice committee at Stormont, the DUP MLA Alastair Ross, wants to see it introduced in Northern Ireland.

He said: “I think it absolutely could be rolled out here. The Netherlands have led the way in showing how it can work and there is no reason why a small place like Northern Ireland can’t also look at having our own system that does something likewise.”

The Civil Justice Council for England and Wales is also proposing its introduction.

If successful, its use could be expanded and could eventually include non-contentious divorce proceedings.

It operates in the same way as the online resolution centre run by the online marketplace eBay, which is used to resolve millions of disputes over payments or the condition of items each year.

Both parties to a dispute who agreed to sign up for online arbitration would log on to a specially designed site where they can access assistance from professional mediators, some of whom would be lawyers.

Users paying a series of flat fees depending on the level of professional assistance they require. In Holland the payment is currently capped at a maximum of 1,200 euros (£867).

In more complex cases, judges would become involved. If agreement could not be reached, the dispute would then go to court.

Backers of the system claim it would result in substantial reductions in legal aid payments, while at the same time improving access to justice for those who do not qualify for legal aid, but do not want to potentially pay thousands of pounds to lawyers.

But Sarah Ramsey, chair of the Family Bar Association, which represents lawyers who work in family courts, says strong safeguards would have to be put in place.

She said: “I think there should be some triggers where if allegations are made of abuse taking place that the courts should be there to oversee and make sure that the interests of the children and vulnerable parties are protected.”

Gerry McAlinden QC, chairman of the Bar Council for Northern Ireland, has said the system could have limited use, but not in major disputes or where there was acrimony.

He told BBC News: “We have to look at it from the perspective of a justice system that is open and fair and accessible to all and if there are improvements to be made which ensure that those three principles are met, then we have to welcome those principles irrespective of whether it impinges on lawyers earnings or prospects or not.”

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