It sometimes seems as though the Internet has taken over everything. Communication, music, shopping, you can find pretty much anything online. Now it appears that even family justice is next.
In a speech to the Family Law Bar Association last week, Sir James Munby announced that from next year people will be able to divorce online. The process will be digital from start to finish and will be done from the comfort of home. The President of the Family Division said this would be the first step to a completely digital and paperless court, and that it would move the family justice system away from one “moored in the world of the late Mr Charles Dickens”.
On the surface it may sound great, marching onward into the future and embracing the digital world. However, once you stop and think about it there is a myriad of potential problems with the idea of online divorce, which could lead to all kinds of trouble.
First of all, what happens to people without access to a computer or the Internet? That might sound unlikely these days but it is still a possibility. Some people simply do not own a computer. Should such people then be unable to divorce?
Even if people do have internet access that is no guarantee they will understand how to go through with an online divorce. Since the coalition government effectively eliminated legal aid, the number of people who have tried to navigate the legal system alone has risen substantially. Making the divorce process digital will only serve to increase that number. But without legal advice and guidance, how can couples with no knowledge or expertise possibly hope to achieve a fair settlement?
Sir James said the Family Law Bar displayed “such dedication, such commitment, such determination, indeed, such passion” and that their work “really does make a difference to people’s lives”. That’s very nice, but it comes across as rather hollow considering his proposal would all-but eliminate legal experts from the divorce process.
Also, anyone who has ever used the Internet will know that digital devices are not flawless. How many of us have been frustrated when a page or app won’t load, or when one of our devices suddenly stops working? So how well with this new online divorce system work? What will happen when it doesn’t? What if it crashes?
A glitch in the system could have serious repercussions. The government has already had to apologise for an error in the Ministry of Justice website’s version of Form E, the form used to provide a full financial statement from each party in divorce proceedings. A simple calculation error in the online version ended up affecting thousands of financial settlements and that was just one aspect of the divorce process, although a very important one. If the entire thing is digitalised the process will become a minefield of potential problems.
In his speech, Sir James also said that hearings could take place via video links. But what happens if one party in the proceedings is surrounded by screaming children? Or is stuck at work? That’s hardly the best way to ensure a fair hearing. Sitting at home at the computer can provide lots of distractions even if your internet feed remains strong throughout.
I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the problems such a system could present. The internet is a marvellous tool which has brought the world closer together but it cannot provide a solution to all life’s needs. When it comes to divorce, I would much rather have an actual person in the room who knew what they were talking about than put my trust in an online form.
Sir James Munby’s full speech is available online. Read it here.