Digitised and paperless family law
In a speech at the Family Law Bar Association’s annual dinner, the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, confirmed that the Family Law Courts could become entirely digitised and paperless in the next 4 years. He confirmed that the Family Law Courts are moving forward into a new phase of reforms further to the reforms in the law which came into force in April 2014. This new phase of reform is more practical in nature and he claims it will be fundamental. He stated that an entirely digitised and paperless Family Court can and must be achieved in the next 4 years, calling it a ‘real revolution.’ He confirmed there is a long way to go but the reforms ‘will extend to the entire justice system: crime, civil, family and tribunals.’
His first vision is for proceedings to be issued online in the future. This will involve an online questionnaire as opposed to a court form. The applicant will fill in a questionnaire, which will be user-friendly and enable them to provide all the relevant information easily. The first proceedings to become entirely digitised will be digital online probate and in family law digital online divorce. The initial implementation of this is planned for early 2017.
Further to this, the President envisages court hearings, up to and including the final hearing, to be carried out online so that the entire proceedings are digitised. This will use digital technology – such as video links – to complete hearings from the privacy of the lawyer’s office. This will result in the court buildings changing in design and function from what they are currently and they will not be visited as regularly by the judges or by practitioners who will be communicating digitally. Ultimately, such plans will reduce valuable time and costs associated with attending court hearings. The President did clarify that complex cases will continue to require practitioners to attend court in the traditional way.
Family law rules
It is clear from the President’s speech that the ‘large population of unrepresented litigants’ are at the forefront of his mind in making these radical changes. He said ‘we must constantly strive to improve, to streamline and to simplify the system.’ This is not only in respect of the application process but in relation to the rules that are currently in place. The President believes that ‘we need an entirely new set of rules’ as the current rules are ‘unreadable by litigants in person… and are simply not fit for purpose.’ He claims that the Red Book is ‘fit only for the bonfire!’ He indicates that the rules ‘must be short and written in simple plain English.’
Finally, the President confirms that the Court forms need some fine pruning and that Court Orders need standardising. He envisions that the Orders will be ‘digitised, with standard templates, self-populating boxes and drop-down menus designed to ease and shorten the process of drafting then producing the Order.’ He states that this could be completed in the courtroom during the hearing, with the help of Wi-Fi, so that parties can leave court with an agreed sealed order in their inboxes. This will inevitably prevent any delay or excessive correspondence between the parties and practitioners further to any hearings, which is currently seen in everyday practice.
It is clear from the President’s speech that drastic changes will be seen in the Family Courts in the foreseeable future. He encouraged practitioners to proceed with enthusiasm and optimism, stating that the different working practices must be embraced. He said ‘this is a time for courage’ and it is therefore with optimism that we embark on a new journey into the future of the digitised, paperless Family Court.
You can read the full speech here: