Courts Service to use lessons of online divorce pilot to develop digital family law service

Munby: Radical revision of court forms and orders

The Courts Service has laid out how it will develop its new online divorce facility, starting with enabling lawyers to submit petitions on behalf of clients.

Earlier this month, Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) started enabling people to issue divorce petitions online, reducing to nearly zero the number errors that previously plagued paper versions.

HMCTS divorce service manager Adam Lennon said this was “only the beginning”.

He explained: “Now that the application part of the divorce process is online we will, over the coming months make the rest of the process digital – including the response from the other spouse to the application and the final certificate of divorce – making the whole process simpler to understand and navigate.”

However, the pronouncement of the decree nisi by a judge will continue to happen in a courtroom.

Mr Lennon continued: “We are also currently working with legal professionals to develop an online application for them to use which will allow them to submit a petition on behalf of a client online.”

He said HMCTS hoped to start testing this with a small group of professional users this summer.

He said the aim will also to adopt the same approach taken to designing the divorce service to all family services over the coming years.

Work is underway to develop a family public law service for proceedings relating to the care of vulnerable children, and also a private law service, relating to parental disputes over children.

In a recent speech to the Family Law Bar Association, the president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby hailed the online divorce pilot as “a triumphant success and shows, to my mind conclusively, that this is – must be – the way of the future”.

He added: “It is also proof positive that, notwithstanding general scepticism, government can ‘do’ IT.”

Sir James said the digital revolution would also enable a radical revision of both court forms and court orders.

“The thickets of numberless court forms – I speak literally; no-one knows how many there are, though in the family justice system alone they run into the hundreds – must be subjected to drastic pruning, indeed, radical surgery, before they are digitised.

“Court orders must be standardised and digitised to ease and shorten the process of drafting and then producing the order.”

Sir James described online hearings as “the most exciting, if also the most challenging, prospect”.

He stressed that “thinking here is still at a very early stage” and acknowledged that “very careful thought” would need to be given to which types of hearing in which types of family case would or would not be appropriately conducted online.

“Hearings in such cases will be conducted over what we quaintly continue to call video links – though I earnestly hope using equipment much better than the elderly and lamentably inadequate kit to which in far too many court rooms we are at present condemned.

“At home we are accustomed to watching television on modern screens where both the picture quality and the sound quality are of the very highest. Why should we tolerate, why should we be expected to tolerate, anything less in the digitised court of the future?”

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