Online divorce and probate are set to be delivered under the courts modernisation programme by early 2017, the president of the Family Division has said.
Addressing the Family Law Bar Association, Sir James Munby also called on barristers to adopt new working practices, including direct access, unbundling and fixed fees.
Sir James said that, in the future, proceedings would begin in many cases with a lay person filling in a questionnaire.
“The applicant – and remember, the applicant will increasingly be a lay person bereft of professional assistance – will not fill in an online application form but an online questionnaire capturing all the relevant information while at the same time being much more user-friendly.
“Some processes will be almost entirely digitised: early examples will be digital online probate and digital online divorce, both planned for at least initial implementation early in 2017.
“Some proceedings will be conducted almost entirely online, even down to and including the final hearing.”
In his speech last week, Sir James described the courts modernisation programme as a “visionary programme of ambition unprecedented anywhere in the world”.
Echoing the words of the Lord Chief Justice at the justice select committee last month, Sir James said the future digital court would need an “entirely new set of rules” and an “entirely new and radical approach” to how rules were formulated.
He said the current Non-Contentious Probate Rules used “archaic and sometimes impenetrable language”, while the Family Procedure Rules, like their civil counterparts, were a “masterpiece of traditional, if absurdly over elaborate, drafting”.
Describing both the Red and White Books as “fit only for the bonfire”, Sir James said “much that is currently embodied in rules will in future simply be embedded in the software of the digital court”.
He promised a “radical revision” of court forms and court orders, which would be standardised and digitised.
“We must have proper wifi access in courts, to avoid the farce of counsel having to leave the building to find a spot on the pavement outside where they can communicate with the court.
“Given the marvels of modern IT, why should we not be able to hand every litigant in all but the most complex cases a sealed order before they leave the courtroom?”
Sir James called on family barristers to “embrace with enthusiasm” new and “where appropriate” different working practices.
“Keep to the substance of your craft, but be prepared to jettison what is only form. Cleave to the essentials. If necessary, abandon the inessentials.
“Make the most of direct access. Make the most of the barrister’s equivalent of what the solicitor knows as unbundled legal services. Consider the offer of guaranteed fixed fees.
“Embrace the opportunities for advocacy in the context of the ever-expanding range of non-court dispute resolution services – arbitration in particular.
“This is a time for courage but also for optimism. The civilised world has always needed lawyers. The civilised world has always needed and, I am sure, will always need advocates.”