Leave Dickens behind
Realising a grand vision often hinges on the financial backing it receives. So how probable is Sir James Munby's online divorce vision?
Speaking at the Family Law Bar Association annual dinner, the country's most senior family law judge, the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, told barristers that in future, some court processes will be almost entirely digitised, citing online divorce and online probate as early examples. He said plans to digitise these proceedings could be implemented by early 2017.
Munby went on to say: 'In times of austerity… we must constantly strive to improve, to streamline and to simplify the system.' He added that a paperless 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 said that in future, applicants who will often be unrepresented will issue proceedings online through a digital questionnaire that would capture all relevant information in a user-friendly way.
Some proceedings would be conducted almost entirely online,
with judges communicating with parties and their legal representatives electronically, with only the biggest cases needing a physical court hearing. So will it work?
There is a long way to go
Munby's views are of a much improved system that will benefit all those involved, be they the parties themselves, the lawyers or the judges. Civil and criminal cases have seen an increased use of technology. For example, there has been an increase in the presentation of witness evidence by video link, computer access in court rooms, and documentation being provided in
digital format, thereby reducing the huge volume of paper traditionally associated with often even straightforward cases.
Some legal practices offer access to online divorce processes right now but they are limited to online form filling, which then need to be printed off for lodging at court in the usual way. The court will also retain paper files for the divorce process.
Other elements of the separation process are very much paper driven too. For example, the court for financial disclosure between the parties (Form E) runs to 22 pages with the compulsory exhibits that can often run to a lever arch file. The court form for an application for an order relating to children is 25 pages. While these and all other relevant court forms are accessible online, again they still require printing off for lodging with the court, which again maintains a paper file.
In order to achieve the president's vision, all relevant court forms would have to be available in an appropriate format to lawyers and parties who are unrepresented, either by choice or necessity, through a readily accessible system which would also have to allow for the storage of relevant none court form documentation, such as witness statements and correspondence.
More pressing concerns?
How easy would it be to create such a system? How long would it take to get it up and running? How readily accessible would it genuinely be to litigants in person, of whom there are
a significant and increasing number?
Personal injury claims are run through an online processes,
so such systems can be developed and a reduction in the creation of huge volumes of paperwork is to be welcomed, as is the use of ever improving forms of technology.
But as Sir James Munby notes,
one wonders what the cost of implementing such changes would be, both to the state and to legal practices. A question would also have to be raised as to the appetite for committing what will be very large amounts of public funds, in the light of further proposed cuts in other and perhaps more worthy areas of government expenditure.
Colin Davies is a partner at Linder Myers