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Family law – is it time for a digital revolution?

The President of the Family Division in his address at the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA) dinner was keen to extol the virtues of modern technology and how he envisaged that the real revolution would be “moving to the digital court of the future”.

Most law firms if not all legal practices are forever upgrading their IT packages to keep up to date with the latest improvement; how we practise law even over 10 years ago is radically different; long gone are the days after court where one had to fish for change to ring the office from a telephone box to report back to the office.

Now, in the days of smart phones and tablets, advocates are multi-tasking; answering emails and preparing documents on other cases, whilst waiting for their case to be called on. Applicants often are able to prepare Orders and circulate before leaving court.

What does the future hold?

By early 2017, the President expects that the initial stages of digital online divorce would be implemented. My question is – how would this be implemented for the vulnerable who do not have access to online facilities? There would need to be proper thought to go in to the support for those who could not complete online forms as an example.

The President has also commented on the future of court forms – ‘they must be subjected to drastic pruning’ before digitalised’. Again, this would help all parties whether lay or legal to be able to complete forms in a timely manner providing the correct information requested the first time and thereby avoiding any mistakes being made and delay to the proceedings.

It is extraordinary that we still do not have adequate Wi-Fi at most family courts; the President commented “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?”

Other proposals included proceedings being conducted completely online without the need to visit a court room. This theoretically could be helpful for busy professionals including the ever increasing litigants in person but, may cause difficulties for those who are vulnerable and do not have access to ‘Facetime’ ‘Skype’ or can’t tune in via video-link which is the service currently being used in the Family courts.

In my view all means of communication should be available to allow everyone who needs to, to participate including the ‘old fashioned’ telephone!

The President is a visionary and the ‘digital revolution’ is another way of bringing the Court processes into the 21st century, in a world where time and paper are in short supply. Whatever new technologies we embrace, let’s ensure the vulnerable are helped, not hindered.