The UK’s most senior family law judge, Sir James Munby, has said that people will be able to divorce using a fully-online system within four years. While Munby acknowledged that this is a tight timeframe for a system that is “unprecedented anywhere in the world,” he remains confident that “it can be done; it must be done; it will be done.”
The process of digitising divorce will begin early next year. Some other aspects of the legal system, notably probate, will also be incorporated into the new online system. The process will become increasingly digital across the next four years, until most couples can carry out the process of ending a marriage entirely over the internet from their own homes. When this process is complete, Munby said, “we will at last have escaped from a court system… moored in the world of the late Mr Charles Dickens.”
Most cases of divorce in the UK are uncontested, with both couples agreeing to the end of the relationship. In such cases, there is already no legal requirement for couples to physically attend court. Rather, such divorces are usually handled by officials in regional court centres, with district judges supervising. The new system would move the process for the majority of uncontested cases further from the courts, achieving an entirely paperless system which separating couples can utilise from their own homes through a computer or other internet-enabled device.
Divorce proceedings could be initiated through the online system, Munby said, and those involved would then proceed to complete a series of online questionnaires. These questionnaires would gather all the information that is relevant to the case, such as financial information and facts that have a bearing on childcare considerations. The separating couple, their legal representatives, and the judge would all “interact electronically” so that none of these individuals will have to be physically present in court at any point throughout the divorce process.
Divorces, along with probate cases, will be the first legal processes to be incorporated into the new online system, Munby said. Whether the digital process will later incorporate any other kinds of legal proceedings remains to be seen.
This new system is not directly related to recent proposals for an online court, which would be exclusively for monetary claims and would handle cases with a value of up to £25,000.
While Munby admitted that this vision of a paperless and wholly internet-based divorce system is ambitious, he nonetheless maintained that it is “a vision not of some distant future but of what has to be.”