Speaking at the at the recent Family Law Bar Association annual dinner, Sir James Munby – president of the Family Division – raised the idea that divorce cases could begin shifting almost entirely online by 2017.
In my view, this will very much depend on whether the Ministry of Justice is able to produce an effective online divorce system. Divorce itself is a fairly straightforward process and is presently a paper exercise which means it is extremely rare for the spouses to have to attend court as the vast majority are agreed (undefended).
However, my concerns are in respect of the ability of the MOJ to deliver. If it can, I am of the view that it would be of great assistance to the public but it remains to be seen whether the public will still require assistance and guidance from their legal team.
I suspect that in a great many cases, clients will require help as it is not always easy to deal with such significant life events in an automated digital manner. It is also likely that many digital divorces will be actioned by the solicitor on behalf of their client.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the other aspects of marital/relationship breakdown – such as child arrangements and finances – can be digitised also. Separating couples will still need to specialist advice from a family law practitioner tailored to their specific circumstances, needs and requirements. This ongoing need cannot – and in my opinion will not – be met by the proposed online divorce system as it will not be able to cater for the varied family circumstances and the broad spectrum of advice which has to be considered.
I am fully committed to supporting and encouraging the introduction of technology to streamline access to justice but this should not be at the expense of practical and cost effective family law advice which will still be required by separating couples.