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As part of the drive towards digitalisation of the Family Court, a new Family Procedure Rules Practice Direction has been published that sets out the pilot scheme for the use of virtual judges for contested divorce cases. The scheme is being piloted in Bristol and will run for 1 year.
Straightforward, uncontested divorce cases will be processed via the existing online divorce pilot but certain applications will transfer automatically to a virtual judge for hearing if:
the applicant lives within the Bristol catchment area;
the application is for a matrimonial order that is a decree of divorce made under Matrimonial Causes Act 1973;
an application via the online system has been successfully submitted;
the application is started in the Family Court;
a hearing is deemed necessary; and
the application is filed in the period 1 April 2017 to 1 April 2018.
By embracing the latest technological advances in artificial intelligence, the scheme aims to deliver a fast, effective and near-flawless solution to the problem of increasing workloads faced by the judiciary. Applicants can log in at home to an encrypted website, where their case will be heard. Alternatively, secure, private booths will be provided at the local court. Each booth will contain a video-screen, video-camera, microphone, USB port and document scanner. Owing to the pressure to fit multiple booths into each courthouse, the special booths have been designed to be compact, although care has been taken to ensure that the max headroom in each booth is adequate.
With over £85 million invested in the scheme to date, it is hoped that the friendly and lifelike virtual judge can be rolled out nationwide following the pilot scheme.
A spokesperson for the MoJ told Family Law:
‘This project has been very much a joint effort, with several departments having the bandwidth to chip in. We have experienced a hard drive towards streamlining the family courts in order to provide a buffer for overworked judges.
We are extremely pleased with the result of this groundbreaking experiment and feel confident that this service will reboot the family justice system to help keep it a well-oiled machine.’
Family Law was asked to test the beta version of the virtual judge, officially named Circuit Judge Irmgard, who begins her duties today. Please see the video clip below for a typical hearing.