Increasing the ceiling of the Disputes Tribunal to $50,000 and developing an Online Tribunal, has been suggested by Waikato University senior law lecturer Les Arthur.
Mr Arthur says that this could enable more New Zealanders who are unable to afford legal representation to secure access to justice.
At present individuals and small businesses with civil claims can go to the Disputes Tribunal if the disputed amount is $15,000 or less; or if all parties agree, up to $20,000. There is a proposal to increase the monetary jurisdiction to $30,000.
"There are lots of low-value disputes that range around $50,000 which are not worth going to the district court so there’s a large gap," Mr Arthur says.
“The ceiling could be increased to $50,000 and the legal rights of parties could be protected without the assistance of lawyers through the development of an online court.”
He says an Online Court system has been proposed in England, where civil disputes up to £25,000 (around NZ$43,000) could be justly resolved without incurring the disproportionate cost of legal representation.
Like New Zealand's Disputes Tribunal, the English Online Court is designed to be used from start to finish by litigants without lawyers, although lawyers would not be excluded. All the essential details of the case and the evidence they provide will be placed in an electronic file, available to both parties and the court.
The software is designed to guide parties through an analysis of his or her grievance in such a way as to produce a document capable of being understood both by opponents and the decision maker. Mr Arthur says this process would help to ensure that the key facts and evidence are clearly outlined when they arrive at the Tribunal for a hearing.
“Appeals from the Tribunal, which should include errors of law, could be submitted electronically to a District Court Judge and in some circumstances a decision could be made on the documents,” Mr Arthur says.
“The online court system would resolve common disagreements over issues such as goods, services and property damage more quickly and easily.”
He notes that one of the most widespread concerns about the proposed Online Court in England relates to parties challenged by or without access to a computer.
“An essential element of the development of an Online Tribunal would be the availability of voluntary agencies such as Community Law Centres or Citizens Advice Bureau nationwide to assist the computer challenged."