Attachments must be in a format supported by the court software. This is set out in specific guidance referred to in the practice direction. It appears to include Microsoft Word and PDF documents, but seems not to include Excel. This may be a matter for further discussions.
Where the email relates to existing proceedings, the subject line of the email must have, to the extent space allows, the case number, parties' names (abbreviated as necessary), the name of the judge or other person before whom the case has been listed if known, and the date and time of any hearing. See further 4.6
The practice direction is clear that, when an email has been sent to the court, a hard copy of the email or attachment must not also be sent. Some firms still have a policy of emailing and then putting the hard copy in the post at the same time. This cannot hereafter happen with the court.
Distinctive provisions apply regarding timings. In respect of applications received after 4.30 pm and before midnight, the date of issue will not be before the next day the court is open. Some practitioners might view this a little cynically and regard the date of issue as being several weeks after it is received! But the point is that the date of issue will never be the date of receipt if after 4.30 pm. In respect of emails the date of receipt, if after 4.30 pm and before midnight, will be the next day the court is open. See 5.2 and 5.3. This is a clear separation of course in both law and practice between receipt and issuing.
Where a time limit applies to the receipt at court or the filing of a document, and it is delivered by email to the court, it is the responsibility of the person or party who is subject to the time limit to ensure the document or application is sent within the applicable time limits, taking account of this above provision, and see 5.4.
Crucially, a court officer may reply by email to an email addressed to the court where it relates to proceedings which are not adoption-focused; see 5.5. This is another warning to all lawyers to make sure that email is checked regularly. It is now no longer any good emailing the court and then leaving the email inbox unchecked for any time. The court may reply and the lawyer will therefore be deemed to have the court's response. Saying that email was unchecked would not be sufficient, according to this practice direction. Many of us rely on automated response messages if we are unavailable through, for example, being in meetings or at court, or on holiday for any period. The practice direction does not anticipate that the court officer would then be any obligation to forward on the email to whoever is looking after the work of the lawyer in their absence. Some court officers might; there is no obligation to do so. This carries real consequences for lawyers, and will mean many firms have to review their policy. Regular checking or automatic forwarding may not be more important than the automated response message following this practice direction.
The practice direction concludes in this section by saying that if documents sent by email require urgent attention, the sender should contact the court by telephone; see 5.6. This is wise counsel, albeit somewhat perhaps optimistic given the present delays when telephoning some courts and the disconnect between the staffing of the telephone switchboard and those processing emails.
Finally, there is some reference to statements of truth. Where someone wishes to file a document containing a signed statement of truth by email, the person should retain the document with the original signature and deliver electronically to the court a version of the document with either the name of the person who signed the document of truth typed underneath the statement or the person who signed the statement of truth has applied a facsimile of their signature to the statement in the document by mechanical means. The court may subsequently require s person to produced the document containing the original signature; see 6.1 and 6.2. This is no more than many of us have been already undertaking but now has the benefit of an explicit guidance from the court.
This is all very good indeed. It is as many of us have been operating but it is now on a formal and explicit footing with clear guidance as to what should and should not happen. It will mean law firms and barristers will need to review their internal policies in email usage, both outgoing to the court and incoming.
We do not yet have a digital family court, and we continue to hope that it will arrive soon. But this development of the rules and practice direction, coupled with the indication of government funds for greater technology usage in the courts, is tremendous progress and much to be welcomed.
This article was originally published on The International Family Law Group LLP's website and has been reproduced here with kind permission.