President hails electronic future for family courts

Family Law|March 3rd 2015

The President of the Family Division has hailed the introduction of electronic documents and processes in the family courts.

Speaking at the annual dinner of barristers’ organisation the Family Law Bar Association, Sir James Munby said the increasing use of computer systems and electronic court files could be an even more “revolutionary” change to the justice system than the raft of family law reforms introduced last year.

Bringing the courts into the “modern electronic world” was “long overdue” and could lead, he claimed, to changes “that would have seemed impossibly visionary, only a few years ago”.

He referred to the increasing use of email for the delivery of court documents, as an alternative to traditional printed paper. In Newcastle, local authorities are now required to submit electronic court bundles in all care cases. This means, said Sir James, that “anyone who wishes to – the judge included – can use a laptop or iPad rather than the too often so unsatisfactory over-stuffed, broken-backed lever arch file.”

Such bundles are also integrated with new court calendaring system F-Diary, he noted. “One click on the relevant entry in F-diary brings the bundle instantly up on screen.”

The President also discussed the prospect of issuing family court proceedings online, comparing the issue legal documents via a courtroom counter to the “days of Dickens”. The postal service was “the latest technology in 1840 but now rather dated.”

Sir James also hailed the prospect of automating significant sections of the divorce process. He declared:

“At what stages in the process is human activity required? There are only two: first, in deciding whether the pleaded facts, if true, amount, for example, to unreasonable behaviour; second, in pronouncing the decree in open court. Everything else can, in principle, be done electronically, at great savings of both time and cost.”

He joked that many of those in the audience would think he had “taken leave of my senses”. He recalled that when he began to practice law 40 years ago, law firms and court rooms had dominated by typewriters and telex machines.

“There was no fax, no internet, no email, none of the electronic gadgets – the laptop, the iPad, the list is almost endless – which we now take for granted. Who can know what things will be like in the Family Court in 2050?”

Sir James concluded:

“…my successor in 2050…will probably think how quaint it was that once upon a time lawyers used sheets of paper held together in something, by then only to be found in the Science Museum, which was once called a lever-arch file.”

Read the full speech here.

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