HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is to start hosting digital family court bundles centrally next year as part of its project to digitise the courts, it has emerged in a briefing sent to family judges.
Moving from manual paper bundles to digital bundles in the family courts is widely seen as the best way to eliminate errors and reduce costs, as hand pagination and manual indexation can lead to disastrous outcomes for parents and children.
An accompanying letter from Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, and Kevin Sadler, deputy chief executive of HMCTS, said they were sharing this first look at the digitisation changes “so that decisions to roll out local changes in the short term can be made in an informed way”.
Creating shared storage – to be piloted in early 2018 – will enable HMCTS to host documents and evidence filed electronically in the same way it used to store the paper version on its files. Local authorities using the new system will have secure logins and provide documents in PDF format.
The briefing note, E-working in the family jurisdiction, revealed that the shared storage solution would eventually become compulsory for local authorities, with all parties in the case able to access the system.
But it noted that more than half of local authorities did not currently work electronically, so in the short term use of the system would be voluntary. Those that did use electronic systems would not be expected to ditch them.
“Over time we will build functionality so that we end up with a final solution that offers most if not all of the functionality that some of the local authority systems out there are offering now”, it said.
The briefing said a survey showed digital systems currently used locally included e-bundling, funded by local authorities and allowing parties, staff and judges to access electronic bundles.
In at least one court, the criminal courtroom platform Clickshare was used, which enabled the simultaneous display via wifi of e-bundles on multiple screens.
The survey had responses from all 42 designated family judge (DFJ) areas. The results found 27 used digital as opposed to paper files, 17 used e-files to access documents in the courtroom, and 15 courts used the so-called Manchester e-filing system – which enables the filing of electronic documents by email.
A total of 58 local authorities provided an electronic bundle.
Aspects of the wider court digitising agenda have sparked controversy, with accusations made of waste in the criminal justice system.
The briefing paper said the first project to launch in the family jurisdiction, Divorce Online, was “progressing well with a new digital application for personal applicants currently being piloted”.
The Lord Chief Justice’s final annual report earlier this month explained that under the divorce service, “applicants will be able to process an undefended divorce online from their home, with additional features added in time, including payments and uploading documents”.