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Divorces to go online from 2017

01/03/16

Another senior judge has visions of a technology enabled future

Divorces will begin to be conducted online from 2017, according to England and Wales’ most senior specialist judge. The commitment was made in the latest in a series of speeches by the senior judiciiStock_Anthony-Baggettary pledging to bring court hearings into the digital age.

Sir James Munby, head of the Family Division of the High Court, told colleagues that family courts have “scarcely begun to harness the real power of IT”.  By this he meant not simply automating paper processes - “a word processor is really little more than an electronic version of the printing press invented all those centuries ago” - but embracing the use of IT “to do things that only IT can do”.

In theory, both the civil and criminal courts are embarking on digitisation. The secretary of state for justice, the lord chief justice and the chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service have all added their voices to the call to replace paper bundles with digital information and to conduct more hearings online.

As head of one of the divisions most prone to dealing with digitally excluded “litigants in person”, Munby is a significant recruit to the cause.  In a speech to the family bar, he described the government’s Courts Modernisation Programme as “a visionary programme of ambition unprecedented anywhere in the world”.

He said it would be achievable: “In future, proceedings will be issued online. The applicant – and remember, the applicant will increasingly be a lay person bereft of professional assistance – will not fill in an online application form but an online questionnaire capturing all the relevant information while at the same time being much more user-friendly.”

Online probate

Munby added: “Some processes will be almost entirely digitised: early examples will be digital online probate and digital online divorce, both planned for at least initial implementation early in 2017. Some proceedings will be conducted almost entirely online, even down to and including the final hearing. The judge, who will not need to be in a courtroom, will interact electronically with the parties and, if they have them, their legal representatives.”

Munby noted that the digital court of the future with its large population of unrepresented litigants will demand “other radical changes to what at present seems so important and so deeply entrenched in our professional cultures. We need an entirely new set of rules; indeed, an entirely new and radical approach to how we formulate court rules”.

No universal remedy

Munby’s emphasis on the need to conduct court hearings without lawyers is unlikely to go down well with the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales. In its latest contribution to the modernisation debate, a response to a review of civil justice, it warned that an online court is not a universal remedy for the challenges facing the court system.

The society’s president, Jonathan Smithers, said: “We support the desire to provide a modern, efficient and accessible civil dispute resolution service, but new ideas must be thoroughly tested before being put into practice. Experience has shown that making changes to one part of the justice system may have unintended consequences.”

 Picture: iStockphoto/Anthony Baggett

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