Big changes are underway in the handling of legal proceedings in our courts. Much later than in many organisations, the Court Service, the civil servants who handle all the work in the back offices at the courts, has started a programme of digitalising the preparation, issue and progress of the “paperwork” required in many cases.
The idea behind these changes is that it will make it quicker and more efficient for litigants to deal with courts, whether or not they are represented by solicitors and for the courts to handle cases.
In terms of the way in which these changes will affect proceedings relating to family law cases (e.g. divorce cases, those relating to money and children etc.), the information required by the court has not changed. In other words, the basic law remains the same. What is different is that instead of completing paperwork which is sent manually to the court, this can now be undertaken online.
Take divorce proceedings as an example.
Before the introduction of the changes, paper divorce petitions were completed and sent by post or delivered to the court offices. A clerk in the office checked the paperwork and if any queries or corrections were required, this would also be dealt with by letter. A paper reply to that query would then have to be sent. Given the usual delays in court offices (caused mainly by staff cuts over the last few years), this pedestrian approach to dealing with paperwork only added to the slowness of the process as a whole.
Similarly, when the time came to apply for the decree nisi (the first court order from the judge, confirming that a divorce could be granted), this would be made in writing by submitting a paper application to the court. Once that application had been considered by the judge, the order would again be sent out through the post.
This and other parts of the process are now to be gradually streamlined. Electronic communications will increasingly be the norm. The hope and expectation is that the time to undertake the procedures will be reduced and can be dealt with more quickly and effectively.
Replacing the paper process referred to above, communications between solicitors, parties and the courts will, increasingly, be undertaken via the internet.
Steps have been taken to ensure that all information is sent in a secure manner so that the chances of it falling into the wrong hands are no higher than was previously the case with postal communications. Solicitors will be able to explain this aspect of the process in more detail.
Given the scale of the changes affecting so many different types of cases and requiring considerable staff training, like many developments of this sort, it is quite likely that there will be snags. Extensive pre-launch testing was undertaken and the system was regarded as being secure and effective.
The modernisation programme is to be welcomed. There is a general expectation that once the changes have bedded down, they will result in much needed and overdue improvements in the service offered by the court processes.
Some surprise has been expressed that the Court Service has not reduced the fees payable for the taking of steps in court. If, as is expected, the system will reduce the time taken in court offices to deal with process, it was hoped that this would result in a reduction in those fees. Pressure is being applied to the Ministry to reconsider the issue of fees payable by the public.
It is important to emphasise that none of these changes affect the law itself. The law applying, for example, to the grounds for divorce or the legal consequences of a divorce e.g. arrangements for children, financial arrangements, wills and all the other matters that have to be considered after a divorce, remains the same.
There is much debate at the moment on possible changes to the law in several areas (e.g. the grounds for divorce) but nothing has yet been decided. When it is, details will be given in these columns.
If you or anyone you know, are affected by the issues raised above and would like more information or some preliminary, confidential advice, please contact the Family team.