President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has recently announced that an online, divorce process will begin to be implemented in 2017. Sir Munby dubbed the current family justice system as outdated and Dickensian, suggesting that radical reform was required to move towards an ‘entirely digitised and paperless court of the future’:
“In times of austerity, and faced with ever increasing numbers of litigants in person, we must constantly strive to improve, to streamline and to simplify the system.”
The intended digital proceedings will take place online, comprising a ‘user-friendly’ digital questionnaire to ‘captur[e] all the relevant information’ from the applicant. In the majority of cases this is assumed to take place without legal support; Munby himself suggests that the expected user will be ‘a lay person bereft of professional assistance’.
This portion of the announcement is worrying enough to many legal professionals, especially since the cuts to legal aid have already led to many people representing themselves in court without adequate support, inevitably leading to unfair settlements and an enormous amount of stress, anxiety and disruption to all involved – particularly those with children.
The announcement continues on to explain that ‘some proceedings will be conducted almost entirely online, even down to and including the final hearing’ via ‘video links’, although ‘the heaviest cases will of course continue to require the traditional gathering of everyone together in a court room.’
There are obvious concerns to be raised over the reliability and accessibility of digital proceedings, especially those conducted over video recording equipment such as web cams – digital glitches, audio drop outs, distractions in the background and limited access to computers are just a few things that could go wrong with such a system. Furthermore, expecting litigants to represent themselves without adequate legal training to negotiate the family court system is not an sufficient solution to a lack of legal aid – no matter how ‘user-friendly’ the process is made.
Existing DIY divorce options are notoriously inadequate, often leading to misunderstandings or shortfalls which result in costly court cases to fix problems that would have been avoided had an experienced solicitor been consulted in the first place.
Before considering a do-it-yourself or ‘quickie’ divorce of any kind, we would strongly urge you seek legal advice. You do not need to engage a solicitor for the entire process; in mediation for example you will only need a lawyer for advice on odd occasions and for preparing the documents. There are several other out-of-court alternatives which offer a face-to-face, affordable option for couples who don’t wish to take their case to court, providing you with the benefit of an experienced family lawyer and the support you need to find the right solution for your individual, unique situation. Mediation, arbitration and collaborative family law are all out-of-court solutions which are generally faster and easier then court divorce, and can be tailored around your needs as an individual, couple or family.
Visit www.franceslindsay.co.uk for more information on the options available, or call our friendly team on 01628 634677.