Digital courts: where next?

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Digital courts: where next?

Life for many is lived online (OTI) as much as it is offline (IRL). Even before the pandemic dragged even the most ardent technophobes into a (semi-) digital existence, the government’s ambitious court reform programme was putting serious money into the process of modernising and digitising justice. So what has changed and what is coming next?

Where are we now? The family perspective

The pandemic ushered in a sudden transition to online hearings and paperless working. It is beyond doubt that this has accelerated the pace of change. Certain features, originally borne out of necessity, will remain. The President of the Family Division has stated that parties and their lawyers should generally be physically present in court when “an important decision” may be taken. That said, many hearings of a more administrative nature are expected to remain online, which saves travel time and costs.

In the family court, many processes can be undertaken online with documents completed and orders made via an online portal.

You can now get a divorce entirely online, whether you are represented by a solicitor or not. This system works amazingly well for the vast majority of cases. There can still be issues with what you might call edge cases but fixes are being delivered all the time. Our experience is that the court service is genuinely receptive to suggestions for improvements. When the new ‘no fault divorce’ legislation comes into force on 6 April 2022, we are expecting a new, improved online interface, made stronger by the lessons of the current system.

Applications for financial orders can now, in some circumstances, be administered online. Only solicitors have access to this system and, unlike divorce for represented clients, it is not compulsory to use it. However, we expect this will change.

Applications for agreed financial orders (consent orders) must be made online where the parties are represented by lawyers. This system is very simple and works very well.

Public law cases – those involving children taken into care – must be started and managed online in pilot areas, the number of which is increasing.

Notwithstanding the role played by online systems, human decision-makers (judges and magistrates’ legal advisers) are still at the heart of the process. There is no suggestion of AI coming in to assist judges decide what should happen in a case. We are a long way off that…for now!

What’s coming up? The next phase

Disputes between parents over arrangements for children (private law) are set to get their own digital makeover. You can currently complete an application form and pay the necessary fee online but the process stops there and reverts to a more ‘traditional’ process with documents sent via post and/or email.

Together with a service for cases about protection from domestic abuse, there are plans afoot for a digital portal for private law children. Summer 2022 has been mentioned.

What does this all mean?

Services, commerce and entertainment have been revolutionised by digital. It would be strange if the court service remained untouched by this. Implementation of the many developments has been characterised by open-mindedness and a can-do attitude, and the future direction of travel is encouraging.

Amid all this shiny IT, a reality check is necessary. If you caught the recent evidence of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, given to the justice select committee, you will have heard a sobering picture of (literally) crumbling bricks and mortar infrastructure, with reference made to “the consequences of the degradation in the funding of the system”. He also expressed concern at shortages of lawyers working in the criminal justice system in particular, together with difficulties filling some judicial vacancies.

Advanced automated systems and functional physical facilities are not mutually exclusive. The challenge for the government is to build a justice system fit for the future, online and offline.

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