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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

Court of Protection Practice and Procedure Conference 2016

A comprehensive guide to best practice and current thinking

01 MAR 2016

Online divorce by 2017 - or is the jury still out?

Tony Roe

Collaborative lawyer & Family law arbitrator


Online divorce by 2017 - or is the jury still out?
According to the media today, digital divorces are just a click away. By 2017, couples splitting up will use laptops or mobiles.


In his address to the annual dinner of the Family Law Bar Association on 26 February 2016, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, said:

'In future, proceedings will be issued online. 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. The judge, who will not need to be in a courtroom, will interact electronically with the parties and, if they have them, their legal representatives. The heaviest cases will, of course, continue to require the traditional gathering of everyone together in a courtroom, although probably only for the final hearing and any really significant interim hearings. The other hearings in such cases will increasingly be conducted over what we quaintly continue to call video links - though I earnestly hope using equipment much better than the elderly and inadequate kit to which we are at present condemned.'

One would welcome a swifter and more efficient system. However, before we get too excited, we should recall what the President said in his evidence to the Justice Select Committee last month:

'Q310 Chair: I understand. Are you satisfied with the progress of the digital work and the capacity of the Ministry of Justice to deliver it, as far as your division is concerned?

Lord Dyson: That applies across the board.

Q311 Chair: Indeed. I mentioned it to Sir James only because we were talking about the digital court.

Lord Dyson: I am sorry, but it does apply. As you know, £700 million has been made available. We have four years in which to do it, which is incredibly tight. The government's track record on IT projects is not exactly shining. We just have to hope. It has to happen, because without it we are just managing decline, and it is getting worse.

Sir James Munby: If you press me to answer that question--

Q312 Chair: I will not press you if you are uncomfortable, Sir James.

Sir James Munby: No. I am not going to say anything to you that I have not already said to others and to officials. As Lord Dyson says, court modernisation will work only if there is an IT revolution leading to the online or digital court - however one describes it. That is fundamental. Online divorce - I am not propounding this merely because I am in charge of family justice; it would be my view whatever system I was in - is an obvious front-runner for that, because from the legal and administrative point of view divorce is a fairly straightforward process that can be very easily digitised. If the MOJ is able to produce an effective online divorce system, that will give enormous credibility to the wider vision of an online court. Conversely, if it cannot, we are in very great trouble.

I have been discussing online divorce - the need for and the form of it - with officials for several months, and I am becoming increasingly concerned. My current position is that the ability to deliver is a question on which the jury is still out. The word I would use is disappointed. I am disappointed by where we have got to after many months of work. I still have no clear answer to such basic questions as what is the overall timeline, being realistic, and what are the stages in the process. It causes me very real concern, not just, or even primarily, because of its effect on online divorce, but in terms of its potential impact on the entire modernisation system.'

It will be interesting to see how quickly divorce becomes digital.

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