Divorce by Questionnaire – the paperless Family Court of the future?

The President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, has given his enthusiastic backing towards the introduction of a fully digital and paperless Family Court by the middle part of 2020. In his recent speech at the Annual Dinner of the Family Law Bar Association, the President set out his hope that the ambitious Courts Modernisation Programme could transform the justice system across the board. In his words, it is long overdue that an escape route is found:

“…from a court system still in too large part moored in the world of the late Mr Charles Dickens.”

A pipedream? Well, the President thinks not. Perhaps there are good reasons for his optimism. Many people have already taken advantage of the Money Claim Online system that allows civil money claims to be processed without the need for setting foot in a court building. The President envisages a future where family proceedings – whether they are divorce or children applications – would be issued online with individuals completing a questionnaire rather than an application form. Judges would usually conduct ‘virtual hearings’ through the consideration of documents alone. If there is a need to hear evidence from an individual in person, telephone or webcam facilities would be the norm rather than the exception.

If this vision is to become a reality, it does represent a formidable challenge. The paperless Family Court of the future would not only require new (simpler) court rules that are understandable by all. The existing IT infrastructure of the justice system requires a comprehensive overhaul. Many court buildings are unfit for purpose, failing to offer adequate Wi-Fi facilities, let alone sufficient power points for electronic devices.

The President’s vision should be welcomed and embraced, despite the obvious challenges ahead. It is an ambitious timetable that he proposes. It is also one that would require immediate attention from a government that has been cruel and uncaring in its approach towards Legal Aid and access to justice for all but the most privileged in our society. If inspiration is sought, one can always turn to Dickens:

“My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.” (David Copperfield)