In common with pretty much every aspect of life today, the court system is moving ever more towards delivering services online. We have seen the introduction of an online divorce procedure and many forms and documents either can or have to be sent to court in electronic format. The transition to fully “paperless” family law has not happened yet but the court system is at least attempting to lead the way.
The Financial Remedies Court
As part of its drive for efficient use of court resources, the family court has developed a system of “Financial Remedies Court”. Essentially, a lead judge in each “zone” (area of the country covered by a network of courts) will be responsible for ensuring that only judges with appropriate training and expertise will deal with financial remedy cases.
What is a financial remedy? This category includes the financial orders made following a divorce or civil partnership dissolution, as well as orders for financial provision for children whose parents were not previously married (Schedule 1 proceedings). It also includes enforcement of financial orders: for example, getting an order for the sale of property in order to deal with an unpaid lump sum or an attachment of earnings order in respect of unpaid maintenance.
Each lead judge will help implement national guidance in their area, with the aim of ensuring consistency of outcome across the country. They will also manage an allocation system to make sure cases at heard by the right level of judge according to their complexity. This move towards specialisation will be welcome in the legal profession and will go some way to reducing the potential for differing outcomes arising from similar cases.
As part of the publicity surrounding the launch of the Financial Remedies Court, we hear of something a lot more radical. We learn of plans for a virtualised appeals process for represented parties and for early directions hearings in financial proceedings during divorce to take place online. These are – relatively speaking – baby steps but getting the digital infrastructure in place for a truly modern justice system has to be a priority.
The civil justice system is in the throes of a really fundamental shift towards digital working. There has been a large amount of publicity about the introduction of virtual courts where disputes are resolved via an online portal, not necessarily in real time. This is incredibly appealing (no pun intended). In so many instances, a judge could make a fully informed decision without the need to “look everyone in the eye”. The financial and practical costs of getting busy professionals into the same courtroom at the same time are substantial and far from necessary on many occasions. Where a judge has to assess a witness’s credibility, an online, non-real time procedure would be inappropriate but if a judge is, for example, being asked to choose between a selection of different business valuation experts, there really is no need for a courtroom.
However, the reform project is not running altogether smoothly. Parliament’s Justice Committee has sounded the alarm over how digitisation will affect those with lower levels of computer and traditional literacy. There is something important about a citizen being able to get justice by being able to walk into a court house and address a decision-maker – no tablet or smartphone involved. The Public Accounts Committee has also raised practical concerns about whether the digital infrastructure is deliverable to make this all happen and happen well. Careful analysis by legal journalist and broadcaster, Joshua Rozenberg, makes for interesting and sobering reading.
The family judiciary is keen to move with the times and deliver a modern, efficient justice system. However, there are big hurdles to overcome.