The first, which
in large measure has already occurred, is the introduction of an efficient
electronic court diary. F-diary, as it is called, is an immense improvement
over its unlamented predecessor, E-diary. The second development is the
increasingly common requirement, particularly in care cases, that documents are
to be transmitted to the court electronically, by email, rather than in paper
form. This enables the court to create an electronic rather than a paper file.
Designed in Manchester, improved in Bristol, this has now been taken a stage
further in Newcastle. There the requirement is for the local authority in a
care case to send the court an electronic court bundle, so that anyone who
wishes to – the judge included – can use a laptop or iPad rather than the too
often so unsatisfactory over-stuffed, broken-backed lever arch file. The other
innovation pioneered in Newcastle is the integration of F-diary with the
electronic court bundle: one click on the relevant entry in F-diary brings the
bundle instantly up on screen.
Thus far we are
in the early days of this third development. Just round the corner is the
fourth development, the introduction in the family justice system of online
issue of proceedings. We live in a world in which we do so much online, whether
it is buying household goods, paying our bills, booking our holidays, paying our
taxes, … so the list goes on. But how does one issue an application in the
family court? If there is still a counter, one can attend the court in order to
issue, just as our ancestors did in the days of Dickens. Or one can use the
post – the latest technology in 1840 but now rather dated. Or perhaps one can
send an email – hardly cutting edge technology and in any event not much
favoured by HMCTS unless, and most do not, you have access to secure email.
The way of the
future must surely be online issue. Most steps in the process of obtaining a
divorce, for example, lend themselves very easily to an entirely electronic
online process. At what stages in the process is human activity required? There
are only two: first, in deciding whether the pleaded facts, if true, amount,
for example, to unreasonable behaviour; second, in pronouncing the decree in
open court. Everything else can, in principle, be done electronically, at great
savings of both time and cost. That will, I suspect, only be a start. Online
issue and electronic court files and electronic court bundles will increasingly
make paper a thing of the past.
But the most
exciting prospect is the one unveiled a few days ago in the Civil Justice Council’s report
– where in appropriate cases the court hearing itself can be
conducted online, everybody participating electronically and without the need
for anyone, even the judge, to be present in a court room.
We are justly
proud of our splendid new court building at Canary Wharf, where the East London
Family Court sits. But when our court files are all electronic, when increasing
amounts of litigation and many trials are being conducted online, what will the
court building of the future be? Perhaps the Palais de Justice of the future
will, much of the time and in many places, be little more than a virtual
presence on the cloud.
At this point
you may be thinking that I have taken leave of my senses. Time will tell. I
merely remind those of you too young to remember those days, that when I first
came into the law, over 40 years ago, legal ‘high-tech’ was the electric
typewriter and the telex. There was no fax, no internet, no email, none of the
electronic gadgets – the laptop, the iPad, the list is almost endless – which
we now take for granted. Who can know what things will be like in the Family
Court in 2050? Of one thing I am confident. When my successor in 2050 comes to
draft the electronic equivalent of PD27A, the bundles practice direction, she –
perhaps she is sitting here tonight – will probably think how quaint it was
that once upon a time lawyers used sheets of paper held together in something,
by then only to be found in the Science Museum, which was once called a
We face an exciting, if challenging, future.
You all have your part to play, because whatever else changes there will, I am
confident, always be a need for family lawyers – family advocates and family
judges. So the FLBA will continue – it must continue – to play its vital role
in the family justice system.