London - Divorces will take place over cellphones or laptops from next year, Britain’s most senior family law judge said.
An online system for ending a marriage will mean neither husband, wife, nor the judge will need to be in a courtroom.
Sir James Munby, president of the High Court’s Family Division, said the click-for-divorce process was “a vision not of some distant future but of what has to be. When it has been done, we will at last have escaped from a court system… moored in the world of the late Mr Charles Dickens,” he added.
The full-scale digitisation of the legal process governing wills and divorce will begin early next year, said Sir James.
A couple who agree to divorce will be able to answer online questionnaires about their marital history, wealth and income, as well as arrangements made for their children.
At present, in uncontested divorces, which make up the majority in England and Wales, neither husband nor wife needs to go to court. The divorce can be pushed through by legal officials at a regional court centre, where a district judge supervises and rubber-stamps the papers.
In future, Sir James said, there will be no paper and not even the judge will have to go to court. But family campaigners said the online system will devalue marriage by making divorce too easy.
In a speech to the Family Law Bar Association, Sir James said reforming the system would improve lives and “save money… for a variety of public purses”.
He added: “We still have a long way to go to the entirely digitised and paperless court … though this is, must be, a vision not of some distant future but of what has to be, and I believe can be, achieved over the next four years.”
An all-computerised court system is “unprecedented anywhere in the world”, Sir James said, but “it can be done; it must be done; it will be done”.
Under the new system, he said, proceedings would be started online and parties would fill in “an online questionnaire capturing all the relevant information”. The first “entirely digitised” cases would be probate – approving wills – and divorce, scheduled to begin in early 2017.
“Some proceedings will be conducted almost entirely online, even down to and including the final hearing,” Sir James said. “The judge, who will not need to be in a courtroom, will interact electronically with the parties and … their legal representatives.”
He added that “the heaviest cases will of course continue to require the traditional gathering of everyone together in a court room… probably only for the final hearing”.
Under 1969 rules, couples who agree to divorce because of adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion can do so in less than a year if there are no complications over money or children. Otherwise, they can divorce after two years’ separation by agreement and five years if one opposes.
The Marriage Foundation’s Harry Benson said: “Marriage is a serious business … Divorce requires time, thought and deliberate intent, not speed, efficiency and the throwaway ease of an online form. It would be wrong to relegate divorce to little more than a tweet. It should be done as it begins, in person.”
Family lawyer Holly Tootill of JMW Solicitors said online divorce was a “novel” idea but that those involved are more likely to “focus on the details … in front of a judge who’s telling you that they believe your position to be right or wrong”.
Ministry of Justice officials declined to comment and said the reforms were at an early stage.