HMCTS have been holding regular events to update court users and get feedback on its massive ongoing  Reform project. The latest such event, which took place at Westminster University in London last week, was focused on family law. Among the major developments on display were the online divorce application portal, a public family law portal for local authorities to file applications and upload evidence, and an online probate application system. 

Susan Ackland-Hood, the CEO of HMCTS, welcomed an audience including lawyers, representatives of non-profit organisations, and others. She said she was aware the system was not as efficient as it could be and felt overstretched and under strain. The aim of the development programme was to provide a court service designed for 2050, not 2018. There was a danger of computer systems being ‘pickled’ at the date of their design: that had to be avoided. It was important to focus on users’ needs. “We don’t have simple ways of dealing with simple things.”

She explained that the Reform programme was not a single project but actually comprised more than 50 distinct projects, falling within two main streams. One of the these was crime, where the development of the Common Platform would provide end-to-end information storage and retrieval for every stage of the criminal justice system from the police to the CPS to the courts and beyond. Then there was the civil, family and tribunal programme, in which there would be pieces that could be adopted and adapted from one part to another.

She was followed by Adam Lennon, head of the Family Team, who provided an overview of family reform generally; then Isabel Syred, Service Manager, gave us a more detailed account of divorce and financial remedy, before Emma Petty, Public Law Service Manager, dealt with public law and adoption.

The big sell in family law reform has been the online divorce project. At a similar event a year ago this was being demonstrated, and since then it’s had a successful pilot and was rolled out nationally at the end of April. For those who have used it so far, there’s been 85% user satisfaction. The failure rate (errors making the application fail) is now 1%, whereas when people did this using paper forms it used to be 40%. It’s primarily designed for people to apply for an undefended or uncontested divorce.

At present it only deals with unrepresented applicants. A version for use by legal representatives is currently being tested. That prioritisation of lay users in the provision of services might chime with the mission to provide “simple ways of dealing with simple things”, but it might alienate lawyers from the reform process if they feel they are being sidelined.

The same applies to the online probate applications.  The online probate application process is easy to use, but only suitable for the most simple cases. It’s not currently suited to more complex cases or those in which lawyers are involved (though again there is now a version for lawyers being tested). For those who have used it, though, there’s been a 93% user satisfaction rate.

Other private family law projects will enable parties (or their advisers) to draw up and download consent orders in financial remedy case, acknowledge service of divorce and download a decree nisi, and so forth, all using the online divorce portal.

In public family law cases, which often have a lot of different parties involved, a shared storage solution will enable the distribution of case bundles (often too large to email) among all the parties. Over 40% of applications (mostly by local authorities) are urgent so a system that avoids lost paper documents is essential. Unlike the Common Platform used in crime, the shared storage system allows local authorities to use their own systems to generate bundles in the first place. Once the document sharing system is working, it will be extended to enable in-court digital presentation of evidence.

People using the Court of Protection will also being able to initiate and manage their cases online, in a project due to being next spring.

Although much of the thrust of the reforms is to obviate the need for paper, it is accepted that there will be some who cannot easily use digital systems. So paper processes will still be available, but there will also be help, under the Assisted Digital project, for those who want to use the online processes. This takes the form of both telephone support and online talking through using screen sharing etc.

One of the questions from the audience concerned the way all the digital court forms had the same look and feel as tax forms and other government processes: was it really appropriate for these court processes to be on the government-controlled website? The answer was, no, it wasn’t, and this was not the first time the point had been raised. The forms were being developed according to a standard design used by so that they could be adapted and re-used, but it was expected that all the digital court processes would eventually be pulled across to a separate site. (The same point might be made about all the tribunal judgments currently residing on the site, unlike the court judgments posted on the Judiciary website, which recently shed the ‘gov’ in its URL.)

So the overall message is “we’re getting there”, but the Reform project does seem to be a long slow process which is causing a lot of disruption and distraction from the everyday business of running the courts. Costs have risen and deadlines been extended, as we noted in an earlier post. There is a risk that the way the project has been promoted, with its £1bn-plus price tag, and the ambitious promises which have been made on its behalf, may have led people to set their expectations higher than may in fact be warranted. That said, much of what is involved is desperately needed modernisation of practices and procedures that have continued largely unchanged for decades, if not centuries. So the visible proof that changes have undoubtedly been made and implemented is reassuring.

You can download and view the Family reform event slides. 

There is also a video of the event itself.

See also the recently issued Reform Update – Autumn 2018, second in what will be a regular series of bulletins on progress of the project.

Featured image is taken from the Family reform event slides. It appears to show the figure of Justice, over the Old Bailey, being given a makeover.