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The changing face of our courts

Chris Keenan considers plans to make the Family Division and the Court of Protection more transparent and tech friendly

15 September 2016

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Earlier this year, Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, proposed plans to open family court hearings to the public. This would no doubt be a monumental change for the courts, which, since April 2009, have only allowed access to certain members of the media.

Speaking at SFE's annual national conference in June, Sir James addressed a similar scheme which is currently being run in the Court of Protection (CoP). The transparency pilot, which was introduced in January and has now been extended until 31 August 2017, gives members of the media and public access to hearings.

Where in the past, the media were only allowed to attend specific hearings, the process has now been reversed, and unless a specific order is made, the media and the public are free to attend hearings as they wish.

The pilot unveils an area of law that has historically been hidden from the public, often criticised for exercising 'secret justice'. Sir James explained that the new scheme has been introduced to raise public awareness of these cases, as well as part of a wider plan to make hearings faster and more efficient.

Although there have been some reservations about the pilot, Sir James said that early feedback suggests that 'there has not been any great change, with the press attending as much or as little as before'. From SFE's point of view, increased transparency is a positive step forward in increasing awareness of such cases and educating people around the risks of not planning ahead and safeguarding ourselves in the event of mental incapacity.

With an increase in the number of cases, but a lack of resources and funding, the pilot is being conducted to investigate how best to increase the efficiency and speed of cases with the CoP's current constraints. This includes a 12-month case management pilot, which will starting September 2016, with the aim to encourage earlier resolution of cases.

Sir James also addressed the issue of court room availability, suggesting that courts should be provided wherever needed, whether in town hall offices or pubs (we assume he means function rooms rather than the bar), to make them faster and more affordable. It may seem far-fetched in comparison to the traditions of our current courts, but this is something Sir James has suggested that we must move away from.

Sir James explained that his vision is in part as a result of the resource constraints on our court systems, with some cases becoming unreasonably protracted as a result of a lack of court room availability and the speed of the current court process.

In addition, he has called for a digital revolution, where memory sticks and iPads replace traditional process and paperwork. Most of us that have considered paperless offices can probably foresee some difficulties here but one can appreciate Sir James' aims for a properly structured court system.

Although clearly ambitious, the president's vision lays out a court system that is accessible and affordable. He believes now is a time for change, and although time will tell the success of the transparency pilots and the plausibility of makeshift court rooms, it is clear there is a conscious move towards more efficient, transparent, and modern courts rooms for everyone.

Chris Keenan is an associate at Humphries Kirk and a director of Solicitors for the Elderly
@sfelawyers

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Marriage & Civil partnership Courts & Judiciary