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Log-in, break up: the digital landscape of family law

In response to the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby’s vision for the digital future of family law, John Bolch looks forward to a new digital landscape for family law.

Recently the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby gave a speech to the Family Law Bar Association conference. The theme of the speech was the technological changes that family lawyers have witnessed, and are about to witness. As to the latter, Sir James may not have revealed anything that we have not heard about previously, but he brought all of the changes together with great enthusiasm, emphasising how important they are, and how we must embrace them.

As indicated, in the course of the speech Sir James recalled the technological changes that have happened previously, both historically and since he was called to the Bar 46 years ago. I, too, have witnessed many changes since I first set foot in a lawyer’s office way back in 1980. Back then much of the work that lawyers did bore a very close resemblance to the work of our Victorian forefathers.

For example, documents may have been typed rather than written out in longhand (although many of the old but still relevant documents stored in the firm’s strong room were longhand), but the typewriters back then had no word processing features, so that corrections had to be made by copious use of correction fluid. It was not permissible to correct some documents, such as wills, as that would make it look like they had been tampered with, so any typing error meant the whole thing had to be started again.

Paper forms (rather than their modern electronic versions, which are then printed out) were one of the primary methods of creating documents, such as divorce petitions, although many firms still typed out their petitions in full themselves.

And when it came to transmitting documents from one place to another, there were essentially only two options, just as there had been back in Victorian times: by post or by hand. It was one of my jobs as an articled clerk to issue High Court summonses, for example, and my experience of doing so, traversing the thirteen draughty miles of the old corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice, made me feel like I was a character in a Dickens novel. Then there were the court hearings, which often took place in the very same Victorian buildings that our forebears frequented, using procedures that had hardly changed.

OK, enough history, but like Sir James, I say all of this to indicate the pace of change, just in the course of our short working lives. And, as Sir James made clear, that pace of change is only going to quicken, with many of the goals of the Courts Modernisation Programme due (in theory, at least) to be completed by 2020.

So, what are these changes?

Sir James mentioned the following, some of which have already been implemented, and some of which are still in the pipeline:

• An electronic diary for listing cases and allocating them to specific judges. This has already been implemented. It may not sound that interesting to anyone involved in a family case, but it will help ensure that cases are allocated to the right judges, reduce delay and improve judicial continuity – i.e. having the same judge deal with a case throughout.

• Electronic court files and bundles with the ultimate goal of making the court paperless. Electronic bundles, i.e. of the documents that the court will require to deal with a case, should, in particular, make life easier for lawyers and litigants preparing for court (instead of having to prepare paper bundles and send copies to the court and the other party).

• Online applications – we have already just witnessed the launch of online divorce applications, and these are to be followed by online applications relating to both children matters and financial remedy claims.

• Digitised court forms and orders – no more of those old paper forms, and court orders that are standardised across the country.

• Lastly, and this is the change Sir James found “the most exciting if also the most challenging”: online court hearings, without the need for anyone, even the judge, to be present in a traditional courtroom. As he emphasised, this would only happen in appropriate cases, and perhaps only for preliminary hearings, rather than final hearings. Still, anything that reduces the pressure upon our ever-diminishing court estate must be a good thing.

As I said at the beginning of this post, Sir James made it clear that the modernisation of the family courts is something that absolutely has to happen.

He said of the Courts Modernisation Programme: “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 moored in the world of Dickens”

Let us hope he is right.

You can read the full speech here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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  1. spinner says:

    The last part with hearings being online will be the big change that will ease in the use of expert systems, everything else is basically an incremental improvement.
    Looking forward to having an AI barrister using Google Duplex represent me in hearings to go along with my AI solicitor using Google Duplex to prepare the case, making phone calls, writing emails and letters where appropriate, talking me through my best options and preparing forms to be submitted.
    All likely free at the point of use, this will be the new legal aid for those who are currently unrepresented because they cannot afford legal help and once those who have no choice prove out the systems they will be widely adopted because they will be better.

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