On 27 February, the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby gave a speech to the Family Law Bar Association at the Middle Temple. I’m not going to report the detail of the content of the speech – I’m sure others will do that – but I did want to say a few words about some of the President’s words.
Early in the speech the President thanked his audience for their dedicated support and commitment to their clients. What was interesting though was what he said about those clients.
He described them as:
“typically some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of an often uncaring society, which neither understands nor wants to understand what we do” (my emphasis).
The fact that the President is aware that society doesn’t understand the workings of the family justice system is of course nothing new – that is precisely why he seeks more transparency, for example via the publication of more judgments. However, I don’t recall him saying previously, at least in such terms, that he does not think that society, or at least part of it, wants to understand. There is a sort of resignation there that seems to confirm what I have thought all along: transparency is a game that we can’t win.
The President then spent the rest of his speech talking about the future, which he described as “exciting, if challenging”. He discussed in particular two “important changes in view”. The first of those related to the approach of the family justice system to children and the vulnerable. The second great change is what he called “the reform of the court process to bring it into the modern electronic world”.
It is that latter change, or at least part of it, that seemed to get the President most excited. Referring to the recent report of the Online Dispute Resolution Advisory Group of the Civil Justice Council, in which it recommended the establishment of an Internet-based court service, he indicated, with clear enthusiasm, that such a service could become part of the family justice system:
“We are justly proud of our splendid new court building at Canary Wharf, where the East London Family Court sits. But when our court files are all electronic, when increasing amounts of litigation and many trials are being conducted online, what will the court building of the future be? Perhaps the Palais de Justice of the future will, much of the time and in many places, be little more than a virtual presence on the cloud.”
I have already said that I thought that it was likely that online dispute resolution would be a feature of our family justice system. The President’s enthusiasm seems to indicate that it is almost a certainty. However, as I also said, I feel that such a system has its limitations, particularly when it comes to dealing with disputes involving children, which of course occur everywhere and all the time. Accordingly, I think (with respect) that the President may be allowing his enthusiasm to run away with him a little when he suggests that virtual courts may replace bricks and mortar courts in many places.
In any event I am not sure that I would want such a faceless future. Family matters rarely proceed perfectly smoothly, and the best way to iron out issues that arise (especially where, as is now so often the case, there are no lawyers involved) is via human contact, whether in a courtroom, over a counter or on the telephone. Communicating with some unseen and unheard face on the cloud is never going to be the same.
Perhaps it is an age thing, but these days I find it difficult to get excited about change, when so much of it seems to be change for change’s sake, rather than change for the better. So, forgive me if I do not share the President’s excitement about the future – it will clearly be different, but whether it will be an improvement is another matter.
The full speech can be found here.