Users to be recruited for on-line divorce system
At the end of January a practice direction was added to Family Procedure Rules 2010, namely FPR 2010 PD36D – Pilot Scheme: procedure for using an online system to generate applications in certain proceedings for a matrimonial order. PD36D does what it says in the title; but it was not clear how to gain access to the new scheme. This has been explained by HMCTS.
After publication of PD36D inquiries were made of Ministry of Justice and of Family Procedure Rules Committee. These inquiries elicited the response that HMCTS are in the first phase of the pilot. Potential users of the new scheme will be personally invited to use the system and given access following a screening process at the pilot site. Therefore, at this stage in the pilot, access to the pilot is controlled whilst HMCTS build confidence in the system for any wider use. The pilot is being run at the East Midlands Divorce Unit in Nottingham and HMCTS are currently recruiting users in the local area to participate in the pilot. How these ‘users’ are chosen, is not stated.
With this in mind, I have updated my note of 31 January 2017 (https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/on-line-divorce-scheme/). Subject to that I have retained most of the original text. The ‘system’ represents a first step towards digitalisation of the procedure for dissolution of marriage and civil partnership (though it applies only to divorce at present). It ‘modifies’ two rules and some existing practice directions to do this.
Lawfulness of rule changes
This note is not intended in any way to question the aptness of introducing schemes such as this, to help simplify court procedures (though ‘I, Daniel Blake’, the Ken Loach film, reminds us that not every-one has access to a computer; or if they have, that they are particularly adept at using it. Allowance must be made for that). That said, I am concerned that schemes like this are introduced in a way that is lawful (I am not entirely sure that this one is entirely lawful, as I explain); and that when introduced they are clear.
There is a statutory provision (Crime and Courts Act 2013 s 75(4) (CA 2013)) which enables the rule-makers to make different rules for different areas; so this differential treatment of divorce petitions, by rule-makers, is fine. A practice direction is made by the President of the Family Division with agreement of the Lord Chancellor (CA 2003 s 81; and see discussion in Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government v Bovale Ltd and anor  EWCA Civ 171,  1 WLR 2274). However, there is nothing to say a practice direction (which is a lesser statutory species) can alter a rule.
PD36D says that where it ‘applies’ an ‘applicant [ie a petitioner] must’ complete all sections of the ‘application process set out in the online system’ (modified PD7A para 1.2). It then modifies the present PD7A to say that where the practice direction applies a petition in the ‘form generated by the on-line system referred to in that Practice Direction’ must be used.
Clarity and the on-line scheme
The rules must be ‘simple and simply expressed’ (CA 2003 s 75(5)(b)). When it comes to amendment of rules I am anxious as to whether this PD is lawful (as explained above: the President using a practice direction to alter a rule, which originally is made by a statutory body). And is it ‘simple’ or ‘simply expressed’? This is a field where the scheme must be designed for use by private individuals who are proceeding without a lawyer (litigants in person). This one of a number of questions HMCTS will, no doubt, want to answer.
Further thoughts on the clarity of the scheme include:
- It is designed to operate for divorces only. A divorce under Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 is started by a ‘petition’; yet the PD speaks always of an ‘application’ (I know that is what FPR 2010 Pt says; but the Act is the statutory expression which has priority). Let us hope HMCTS can be clear on terminology, and that – in the usual way – a statute takes priority over a rule.
- The practice direction refers to a ‘matrimonial order’ when it means a decree of divorce: same points as above apply.
The new PD has had some publicity amongst family lawyers. It would have been helpful for the plans for it to have been made more public, and for PD36D to have had an explanatory note – something which goes out with all statutory instruments – so all of us knew what was intended by it. It would have been of value if that note had included:
- That the new pilot system applies to all divorces from [a date] for [the individuals who are to be targeted by the scheme]
- Whether or not it is compulsory for those chosen
- Where information about the scheme can be found at [link to site]
- Any information about the data collected, confidentiality etc.
Rules amended by a rule
And if I am right that you cannot use a practice direction to alter a rule, then it the rules should please have been amended by another rule. It is sobering to think that someone may find that their on-line divorce is challenged by an awkward ex-spouse; that an Administrative Court judge will say that yes delegated legislation (ie Family Procedure Rules 2010) cannot be varied in this way; and then a decree (perhaps where papers were not properly served) will be rescinded. If that happens, and the petitioner has remarried, that could be bigamy, and another petition – nullity this time – may be involved.
This, perhaps, puts a duty on the respondent’s adviser who is troubled by the legality of these rules. I speak only a year or so after two family proceedings practice directions were held by the Supreme Court to be ultra vires the President (or his predecessor) who made them (see eg Wyatt v Vince  UKSC 14,  1 FLR 972).