27 October 2020 - Article
With the approaching era of driverless cars and shopping delivery by drone, some have predicted that the role of lawyers will be greatly changed by technological advancements in artificial intelligence. Are technological advancements to be welcomed when it comes to family law?
Earlier this month Young Resolution London hosted an event debating the motion, ‘This House Believes in an Online Family Court.’ It was chaired by the President, Sir James Munby who gave an address outlining how the digitisation of the court system will be introduced to make it more efficient and accessible to clients and lawyers alike.
We welcome the government’s efforts to modernise the court system and believe that our role in helping clients through the process will remain as important as ever.
In recent years services such as Wikivorce have emerged aimed at making the divorce process more accessible. Celebrities such as Gary Lineker have questioned the need for lawyers at all having managed to reach a settlement in a constructive and amicable way in his own divorce. But does this approach work for everyone?
It is questionable whether legal advice could ever be delivered via an automated online system dealing with likely entitlement and outcome. How would one asses the factors considered by the court given that they are so subjective and case specific? We do our best to settle cases out of court, but if a case does go to trial, a judge will hear evidence to get a feel for whether a witness is credible. A judge’s ability to hear oral evidence would be hard to replicate online or in an automated environment.
The discretionary nature of the system allows judges to be creative in order to achieve fairness. Cases are so fact-specific that an automated and online system may not work to the benefit of clients. However, when parties have reached an agreement and it is simply a case of concluding divorce proceedings and dismissing financial claims, there is surely a place for an online system. But if parties have complicated business or trust assets or there is an international dimension, that is where our role is crucial to guide them through the process and to deal with any difficulties arising.
The discretionary nature of English family law represents the best and worst of our system, depending on one’s view and has earned London a reputation as the ‘divorce capital of the world’. The digitisation of the court administration is welcomed if it improves divorcing parties’ access to a fair and timely outcome but it should not be at the expense of proper judicial oversight.
Family law remains largely paper-based. Yes, court forms are available online and we are moving towards the e-filing of Orders, but a fully online system is very much a future prospect rather than a current reality. Following the consultation paper, ‘Transforming Our Justice System’ published in September 2016, work is underway on a pilot project to allow divorce proceedings to be issued digitally for the first time. No date has been set for it to be rolled out to the rest of England and Wales and it is likely to be some way off. We look forward to embracing technological changes to ensure that our clients continue to receive the best service available.