Northern Ireland

Divorces in Northern Ireland 'could be settled online' under proposals

The online dispute resolution system is currently being used for some legal cases in Holland and British Columbia in Canada
Image caption The online dispute resolution system is currently being used for some legal cases in Holland and British Columbia in Canada

The way some divorces and low value compensation cases are dealt with in Northern Ireland could be set for radical change.

In future they could be settled over the internet using an online disputes system similar to that used by eBay.

Judges, barristers, solicitors and politicians are being asked to consider backing the change.

Initially the system would be used to settle compensation claims of less than £25,000.

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

The online dispute resolution system is currently being used for some legal cases in Holland and British Columbia in Canada.

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

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.

In the most complex cases, judges would become involved.

If agreement could not be reached, the dispute would then go to court.

Supporters claim the system 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.

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

"I think it absolutely could be rolled out here," he said.

"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."

Image caption DUP MLA Alastair Ross wants to see the system introduced in Northern Ireland

The online resolution system has been used to settle some compensation cases and divorces for the past six months.

It has only dealt with a fraction of the overall number of cases, but has a 60% success rate for those who have used it.

But some senior legal figures in Northern Ireland have warned that it would not be appropriate for some divorce proceedings where there are allegations of domestic or child abuse.

Earnings

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.

"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," she said.

There are costs involved, with users paying a series of flat fees depending on the level of professional assistance they require.

In Holland, no matter how complex the case, the payment is currently capped at a maximum of 1,200 euros (£867).

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Media captionSarah Ramsey of the Family Bar Association says strong safeguards would have to be in place

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 said any concerns about the impact of the system on lawyers' earnings or employment prospects should not be the basis for opposing it.

"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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