Master of the Rolls clarifies comments appearing to suggest small claimants don’t need justice

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By CJ McKinney on


Legal Twitter takes aim at Sir Geoffrey Vos

The Master of the Rolls has sparked controversy by appearing to suggest that people making small court claims don’t really care whether they get justice so long as the decision is quick and cheap.

In a speech delivered last week, Sir Geoffrey Vos said that “for small claims, the parties often want a swift cost-free resolution, without much caring whether the outcome is robust and dependable”.

Vos later clarified that he was talking about disputes over “micro transactions” on eBay, rather than County Court small claims which can be for up to £10,000.

But the speech as published very much didn’t make that clear, prompting legal Twitter to lambast England’s top civil judge as “out of touch” for his “very worrying” statement.

Speaking to the Society for Computers and Law on 17 March, Vos canvassed tech trends such as blockchain, smart contracts and the “meteoric rise in quantum computing that I have seen described as being likely to ‘upend’ every industry”. The speech went on to predict what dispute resolution might look like in the brave new world of 2040.

It included this controversial passage:

“Every justice system has to cater for the types of people and entity who are entitled to access it. It is important to understand that justice is no longer a binary process. This important principle underpinned Woolf’s reforms last century and it remains true. For small claims, the parties often want a swift cost-free resolution, without much caring whether the outcome is robust and dependable. In large disputes and some other types of claim, the parameters will be different, and the parties may be prepared to invest time and money in achieving a more just and perhaps objectively correct solution.”

That went down like a cup of cold sick on legal Twitter when the transcript emerged.

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It turns out other panellists had similar reactions on the night. Former Court of Appeal judge Elizabeth Gloster took Vos up on his “fast food approach”, saying “I don’t know where you grew up in the County Court, but it wasn’t in the sort of small claims case that I was doing, where the smaller the case, the more the parties care desperately not about getting an answer, but getting what they think is the right answer”.

That prompted Vos to row back all the way to the boathouse.

“The claims that I’ve been talking about… are on eBay… they’re for very small sums of money generally and people genuinely don’t care because they don’t want to spend any money”, he said.

Vos added: “I’m not talking about those that think they need to take their small claim to the County Court”.

Elsewhere in the speech, Vos had referred to “the 60 million small claims brought every year on eBay… I would expect that most such disputes will be resolved very quickly indeed by AI driven portals that provide a rough and ready resolution”. But this was several paragraphs after the reference to small claimants not caring about the outcome of their cases, so it’s not like the extract was taken out of context — only the unpublished Q&A clears up the misunderstanding.

Vos, 66, has made lawtech his specialist subject, speaking regularly about the paper-free, crypto-heavy law of the not-too-distant future. Most such speeches pass without incident.

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