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.

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.’

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