Divorce to move online in 2017, says Munby

Topics: Family and children,Courts business

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  • James Munby

Divorce cases could begin shifting almost entirely online by 2017, the president of the Family Division has said. 

Sir James Munby (pictured) told barristers this week that in the 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 initially implemented by early 2017.

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Speaking at the at the Family Law Bar Association annual dinner, he said: ‘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.

‘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.’

Munby said that while recent progress in the court system has been rapid, with more courts using ‘eFiles’ and ‘eBundles’, there is still a long way to go.

An entirely paperless and 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’. 

He added: ‘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 an online questionnaire which would capture all relevant information in a user-friendly way.

Some proceedings, he said would be conducted almost entirely online, with judges interacting electronically with parties and their legal representatives, 'if they have them'. While the heaviest cases will still require physical court cases, these would probably only be for the final hearing and for really significant interim hearings. 

On other developments in family courts, Munby said that some courts will soon pilot schemes for judicial involvement in the pre-proceedings phase of some care cases.

He said: ‘The idea may seem astonishing – how can a judge be involved pre-proceedings? – but 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.’

He 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, although these are troubled times for law, the civilised world will always need lawyers: ‘This is a time for courage but also for optimism.’

Readers' comments (5)

  • Hmmmm.................

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  • It never ceases to amaze me how elderly judges have such a naive belief in the ability of technology to deliver justice and to provide a remotely viable substitute for good, professional advice.

    Oh well, I've no doubt the IT consultants are rubbing their hands with glee at yet another opportunity to relieve the MoJ of another billion or so on a doomed project.

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  • It's a long way from the days of Mr Commissioner Contantine Gallop QC.

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  • I LOVE the standardisation of processes. It can be a great way to avoid reinventing the wheel and of making sure that important pieces of information or advice are passed on at the appropriate time but I have severe concerns about this suggestion.

    At the moment, when the litigant in person comes unstuck he or she can approach the court staff with the particular query or document and be directed to a source of help. Once that all goes "online" how is the litigant then to be assisted? Online helpdesk? Live chat? Staffed by the same calibre of people who so helpfully assessed the LA contract bids? Oh, purleeze...

    It's bad enough with the new centralisation of the paper based system but how is the punter in this brave new world going to manage when there's no guarantee that the forms will even be right (Form E fiasco, anyone...?)

    Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights...

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  • Divorce as we know it should be abolished.
    A contract of marriage should be like any other private contract with some standard terms which must be incorporated just as a minimum notice period to end it.
    If churches had not stuck their noses in we would never had had the battle of the state to wrench marriage out of church clutches.
    Financial arrangements between parties and personal responsibilities for children are different. Prenups should be the norm and could be incorporated into marriage contracts. Upbringing of children is the area which needs careful attention so both genetic mother and genetic father are responsible until age 18 in equal measure. Any reliance on the state should result in a charge ( like a student loan) repayable for life. That should curb some parents going off and creating 2nd families without much thought as to "gone before" family.

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