Since the 2015 Autumn Statement, HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has been working to improve digital working in the family courts in order to ensure they are “fit for the modern age”. Two years down the line, HMCTS has published an update on its plans for modernising e-working in the family jurisdiction.
In the update, HMCTS sets out its “overall vision” to have “paperless processes from issue to resolution, wherever possible, across the CFT jurisdictions”. To date, Divorce Online has been launched and an e-filing system has been developed at the Manchester Civil and Family Justice Centre (the ‘Manchester e-filing system’), both of which are said to be proving successful. Some have expressed concern as to the security of data held in these online systems and as a result, the roll out of the Manchester e-filing system was paused while a risk assessment was carried out. This pause has since been lifted and despite the data security concern, the digitalisation of family law proceedings will be welcomed by many as a much needed modernisation in the family jurisdiction.
The Manchester e-filing system is a locally developed solution which has been trialled in some locations. However, HMCTS are looking to launch a more national solution to rolling out e-working, The Reform Programme, in early 2018. This Programme, which will have been subject to more rigorous testing, will provide a robust solution for the digitisation of family law proceedings, replacing or improving the local digital systems currently in place. The Programme will be backed by a national support network, including help desks and other established systems.
The Public Law Project, set to launch in October 2017, is a “national legal charity which aims to improve access to public law remedies for those whose access to justice is restricted”. One of the aims of this Project is to digitise the whole process in public law proceedings. Those involved with the Reform Programme have already begun looking at the development of digital products and have been working in conjunction with those at The Public Law Project. It is anticipated that this Project will be “the pathfinder for both the design and development of future products and the first pilot of their use”.
The complete digitisation of public law proceedings includes allowing for e-files, e-filing, e-bundling and also in court digital presentation. Technology is already making its way into practice directions, and is set to become a normal part of procedure. The substituted Practice Direction 12J supplementing the Family Procedure Rules 2010, which comes into force on 2 October 2017, prescribes that, in relation to domestic abuse, where a person cannot be present at a hearing for reasons beyond their control and “video-link is not available, the court should consider alternative technological or other methods”. Technology is enabling people to access public law proceedings in situations where they previously would have been denied that opportunity.
In terms of next steps, HMCTS views the first move towards widespread e-working as the introduction of a shared online storage system, whereby HMCTS will be the host of documents and files held electronically. Documents uploaded by local authorities to the online shared storage system will be available for the court to view easily and download. It is hoped that, as this system is developed, this feature will be made available to all parties to a case. HMCTS state that they will continue to visit local authorities, courts and practitioners to assess the implications of the changes being made and to process early feedback as the new systems are rolled out. Potentially, we will see nearly completely paperless processes across the family jurisdiction in the near future.