Last Thursday Mr Justice Mostyn, in his capacity as the National Lead Judge for the Financial Remedies Court project, issued a press release updating upon the present status of the project. I don’t believe it contained much that is new, but I still think that it is useful to go through what he said.
He began by drawing attention to what he called “the successful extension of the Financial Remedies Courts (‘FRC’) project from its single original pilot zone (in operation since last year in Birmingham) to eight new zones.” “These are the new zones”, he said, “announced by the President of the Family Division last year. Lead Judges are in post in all zones. FRC ticketed judges [i.e. judges authorised to do the work] have been identified in all zones. All zones are now operationally up and running, as planned.”
He explained that the project had been “greeted enthusiastically” by lawyers doing financial remedies work”, and presented “many exciting opportunities for the efficient and effective delivery by the court system of this area of work”. Sounds good. I’m sure practitioners, who sometimes find themselves dealing with courts and judges who, shall we say, are somewhat less than expert at financial remedies work, are very happy to have their cases dealt with by FRCs.
Moving on, his aim in taking the project forward, he said, “is to ensure that cases are dealt with by ticketed judges who have a knowledge and experience of financial remedies work.”
OK, we know that, but what about future developments? He explained:
“We are enthusiastically working on plans to develop the project. Our plan is to digitalise all financial remedies work and the necessary IT development is well under way, being in use in some areas with a plan to spread it rapidly and widely.
“We expect to make further announcements in the coming months to extend the project to geographical areas not currently covered.”
Excellent news. It seems to me that the sooner the whole country is covered by FRCs, so that everyone can benefit from them, the better. And imagine the potential benefits from digitising the work (so long, of course, as it is done properly). No more unwieldy lever-arch files full of paper bundles! Instead, digitised bundles that can be instantly searched for relevant material (or at least that’s how I imagine this brave new world).
Mr Justice Mostyn then goes into a little more detail, saying that work is being done “on a unique web-based scheme to capture case final order data which, in due course, we hope will assist the achievement of consistency and predictability in mainstream financial remedies cases.” Again, we have heard about this before, but if done correctly, it really could radicalise the way in which financial remedy cases are dealt with, at the same time making it much easier for lawyers to advise clients on possible outcomes. It should also make it easier for litigants in person to understand what is likely to happen in their case, in turn making it more likely that they will be able to settle without going to court.
The press release ends with three points.
Firstly, it is planned to move the approval of financial remedies consent orders away from the Regional Divorce Centres to the FRCs “as soon as this can be administratively achieved.” Again, meaning that consent orders will be dealt with by expert judges, hopefully making the procedure quicker.
Secondly, Mr Justice Mostyn says that those involved in the project are promoting out of court dispute resolution, for example private First Dispute Resolution Appointments (for an explanation of which see this post), and arbitration. No surprise there – obviously (and ignoring the benefits of out of court dispute resolution) all courts are interested in anything that can reduce the burden of work they face.
Finally, Mr Justice Mostyn reminds us that work has begun on plans for virtual courts. He says this will start with appeals where the parties are legally represented, and in due course be extended to some First Appointments (i.e. initial hearings of financial remedy claims). I think back to my years practising and imagine how wonderful it would have been to deal with hearings without leaving the ‘comfort’ of my office…
Mr Justice Mostyn is clearly very enthusiastic about Financial Remedies Courts, and that is good to see. Let us hope that the reality of this new world comes up to expectations. If it does, then that is good news for all concerned: judges, lawyers and, above all, litigants.