Digitisation is already making its presence felt in the UK’s 21st Century court system, but could divorce proceedings be heading the same way? Well, according to Sir James Munby, the president of the Family Division, the answer is probably yes: divorce cases could begin shifting almost entirely online very soon, he claims.
Speaking to barristers at the Family Law Bar Association annual dinner last week, Sir James Munby said that in his opinion some court processes will be almost entirely digitised in the very near future, in a similar manner to early online divorce and online probate cases. If that comes to pass, how soon are we likely to see such changes? Well, according to the president, digitised proceedings could be partially implemented as early as 2017:
“In times of austerity, and faced with ever-increasing numbers of litigants in person, we must constantly strive to improve, to streamline and to simplify the system,” he said.
“We cannot afford to be complacent or to imagine that there is not much that remains to be done – for otherwise unwelcome changes may be imposed on us from outside,” he added.
However, Munby also warned that whilst there has been significant rapid progress in the digitisation of the court system with the introduction of ‘eFiles’ and ‘eBundles’, there is still a long way to go before the digital process is finally completed. He told the guests that despite the reluctance of some lawyers to bow to the inevitable; progress and modernisation of the court system was needed.
He said a digitised court must be:
“A vision not of some distant future, but of what has to be, and I believe can be, achieved over the next four years of the courts modernisation programme.”
“It is a visionary programme of ambition unprecedented anywhere in the world. But it can be done; it must be done; it will be done. And when it has been done, we will at last have escaped from a court system still in too large part moored in the world of the late Mr Charles Dickens,” he added.
So what will divorce proceedings be like in the future world Munby describes? Well, he believes that in the new digitised world of divorce proceedings, applicants, who will often be unrepresented, will issue proceedings online through an online questionnaire which would capture all relevant information in a user-friendly way. Some proceedings, he believes, will be conducted entirely online.
Judges will interact electronically with parties and their legal representatives, should they choose to have representation. However, whilst he conceded that in more complex cases there may still be a need for a physical court case, these would, in his opinion, only be necessary for the final hearing or for particularly significant interim hearings.
He also clarified the position on the involvement of judges in the pre-proceedings phase of some care cases, saying that ‘we have to think in new and perhaps more radical ways about how best to make the child’s journey through the case system as seamless as possible.’
In conclusion, the president of the Family Division told the bar:
“Make the most of direct access. Make the most of the barrister’s equivalent of what the solicitor knows as unbundled legal services. Consider the offer of guaranteed fixed fees. Embrace the opportunities for advocacy in the context of the ever-expanding range of non-court dispute resolution services – arbitration in particular.”
He said that even though these are troubled times for law, the civilised world will always need lawyers, adding: ‘this is a time for courage but also for optimism.’