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The Brave New World of Electronic Filing at the Central Family Court

Michael Allum, Solicitor with The International Family Law Group LLP, explains how the Central Family Court's pilot scheme for electronic filing of documents will work.

Michael Allum, Solicitor, The International Family Law Group LLP

















Michael Allum
, Solicitor, The International Family Law Group LLP

The Central Family Court (CFC) in London is in the final stages of putting together a pilot scheme for the electronic filing of various documents at its Financial Remedy Unit (FRU: a specialist unit set up within the specialist CFC which deals only with financial cases of some complexity with specialist and experienced judiciary and court staff). The pilot follows the announcement in George Osborne's Autumn 2015 statement that there would be investment of £700 million into courts and tribunals over the next five years to bring about a more efficient justice system; and Practice Direction 5B (Communication and Filing of Documents by E-mail) of the Family Procedure Rules 2010.  For too long, family law has seemed to be the digital poor relation as IT innovations have occurred elsewhere in the justice system.  It has frustrated many of us.  Hopefully now we can make progress and significantly improve the work of our family courts.

Since the introduction of PD5B, Ryan Gallagher of the CFC has prepared an extremely helpful note (reproduced as an appendix to this article) about the arrangements for the introduction electronic filing of documents at the FRU.  His note provides clear guidance as to the intended changes and practical implications and should be read by all users of the CFC.   

In summary the intention of the FRU is to pilot the electronic filing of certain documents for financial cases issued in 2016 with the possibility of a move towards compulsory electronic filing in the future.  The purpose of this short note is to highlight to the profession the move towards electronic filing and to raise awareness of some of the practical arrangements.  

What documents may be sent to the court by e-mail?
Chapter One of PD5B provides that a document may be filed at the court by e-mail if it is (a) related to family proceedings other than adoption and (b) listed in the e-mail guidance on the HMCTS website as a document that may be sent to the court by e-mail. 

The list on the website of HMCTS applies to all civil proceedings and Ryan Gallagher has therefore helpfully clarified in his note that it will soon be possible for the following documents to be submitted to the FRU electronically:

I understand that the FRU Team at the CFC will create individual case folders on the court's shared drive, which the judge and their clerk can access for hearings.   

I believe that for the time being divorce petitions and applications for financial orders in Form A shall remain beyond the scope of documents which may be submitted to the court by e-mail. 

At the moment it is only the FRU and Public Law departments that are piloting e-filing.  Therefore all other divorce related documents (i.e. acknowledgments of service, applications for orders relating to service, applications for Decree Nisi and applications for Decree Absolute) must be filed as hard copies. 

For the time being D11 applications within existing financial remedy proceedings and consent orders should also be filed in hard copy until further advised. 

I understand that the FRU would also like to trial the introduction of the electronic filing of hearing bundles.  The FRU are therefore exploring "cloud" options which would allow judges and parties to update and edit court bundles after they have been filed.  Local authorities in Public Law cases are currently piloting a cloud based system and their feedback will be invaluable in the FRU's planning.  

In what format must documents be submitted by e-mail?
All documents should be submitted in PDF format (and not e.g. in Microsoft Word format). 

Is there a limit to the size of the documents which may be sent to the court by e-mail? 
Paragraph 3.3 of PD5B provides that:

(a) the e-mail and any attached documents (including copies that the court would be required to serve) must not exceed 50 sheets of A4 paper; and

(b) the total size of the e-mail, including any attachments, must not exceed 10MB. 

Although the introduction of PD5B is to be welcomed, the above requirements in relation to the size of documents which may be sent to the court by e-mail could potentially significantly reduce the benefit of electronic filing.  This will be an important feature of the piloting.

Practice Direction 27A, which was introduced a couple of years ago to regulate the size of court bundles, provides that court bundles must not exceed 350 pages.  Surely if the family court is moving towards lodging bundles electronically the restrictions of the number of pages should be consistent.  Even the most prudent of practitioners with the simplest of cases would struggle to limit a court bundle to 50 pages.

Moreover if the intention behind electronic filing is to reduce the volume of paper, the fulfilment of that intention is significantly restricted by imposing limits on the size of documents that may be submitted electronically as the knock-on effect will be that large documents will continue to be lodged in hard copy format at court. 

Therefore the news that the Judiciary and Administrative Staff at the CFC have agreed that in the near future any specified documents which are over 10MB may be submitted to the FRU using software called Egress Switch is to be welcomed.   

How to use Egress Switch
Children practitioners will be familiar with this Egress Switch as it has been used by CAFCASS for some time now.  It operates in a similar way to Microsoft Outlook, is very simple to use and the free version is mostly sufficient for the purposes of sending large documents to the court electronically.

The simplest way to create an account is to click the following link (click here) which will then prompt you to enter your e-mail address, name, telephone number and to create a password.  You will then be asked to select two security questions and enter a security code.  Egress Switch will then e-mail you an activation code (note: for several of us at iFLG this ended up in our junk folder so if you do not receive it within a few minutes do check there) for you to enter and then your account is created.    

A guide to how to create an Egress Switch account can be found at the following link: click here.

Once created, you can log into your Egress Switch account by clicking on the following link: click here.

You can then send a secure e-mail with an attachment of up to 60MB by clicking on the "New Secure E-mail" tab on the left-hand side tool bar. 

To what e-mail address should I submit documents electronically?
All documents which may be submitted electronically should be sent to the CFC's designated e-mail address (cfc.efiling.fru@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk).  The court staff will then download the document and save it to the case's individual folder on the CFC's internal IT system. 

In the event that a document has been sent via Egress Switch the CFC will then receive an e-mail notifying them that a document has been sent to their Egress Switch account and they will then download and save to the court's system.   

What about the payment of court fees? 
Chapter Three of PD5B provides that where a fee is payable by a person they must (a) provide a Fee Account number, credit card number or debit card number and (b) authorise the court to charge the applicable fee to that Account or card number (para 3.2). 

Although Chapter Two of PD5B permits a specified organisation (i.e. local authorities and CAFCASS) to undertake to pay the relevant court fee in respect of an urgent application (para 2.3), there is no equivalent provision for non-specified organisations and therefore practitioners must pay the fee at the time.     

Should I be aware of any formalities?
Chapter Four of PD5B deals with technical specifications.  It provides that where an e-mail is sent to the court it must contain the name of the sender and an address for contact (para 4.1).  Correspondence and documents may be sent as either text in the body of an e-mail or as one or more attachments (para 4.2). 

Where an e-mail relates to existing proceedings, the subject line of the e-mail must include the case number, the parties' names, the name of the judge before whom the case has been listed and the date and time of any hearings (para 4.6).  This is supported by the FRU and the CFC who have asked all practitioners to include the following information in the subject heading of all e-mails to the court:

"CASE NUMBER – PARTIES' NAMES – DESCRIPTION OF THE DOCUMENT BEING FILED"

When will my application or document be treated as received?   
Chapter Five of PD5B provides that where an application or e-mail is recorded by HMCTS as received at or after 4:31pm, the date of receipt is the next day the court is open and the date of issue (if applicable) will not be before the next day the court office is open (para 5.2 and 5.3). 

What about statements of truth? 
Chapter Six of PD5B provides that where a person wishes to file a specified document containing a statement of truth by e-mail, the electronic copy filed must contain either (a) the name of the person who has signed the statement of truth typed underneath the statement or (b) a facsimile of that person's signature by mechanical means (para 6.1). 

In addition, the person must retain the original signature and the court may require a person to produce the original (paras 6.1 and 6.2).  

What about Litigants in Person (LiPs)?
When compulsory electronic filing of specified documents is introduced the court staff at the CFC will assist LiPs by scanning their documents onto the court system for them.  It is however hoped that these changes will in fact make life easier for LiPs and the court staff will still be able to assist LiPs over the phone, at the counter or via e-mail.  

Conclusion
The circular distributed by Ryan Gallagher on behalf of the FRU at the CFC is to be hugely applauded.  It provides much needed clarity on the practical arrangements for the electronic filing of documents and welcomes feedback from users of the CFC.  The flagship family court of England and Wales is leading the way with the introduction of electronic filing and is doing a greater service to all who come into contact with the family law justice system. 

I am grateful to Ryan Gallagher, Manager of the FRU at the CFC, HHJ O'Dwyer and my iFLG colleague, David Hodson OBE, who sits as a Deputy District Judge at the FRU, for their assistance with this article.  David and I would be interested in feedback from practitioners and ideas on how we can better produce digital innovations for our family courts

22/04/2016     
michael.allum@iflg.uk.com
_____________________________

APPENDIX

The Introduction of Electronic Filing in the Financial Remedies Unit

The Financial Remedies Unit (FRU) is piloting a transition to electronic filing and are currently finalising a procedure that we hope will benefit the court and its users.

In the aftermath of the centralisation of divorce to Bury St Edmunds, the Central Family Court obtained direct access for financial proceedings with a complexity element. We feel that electronic filing would be something that we could use to ensure that all documents were accessible to all court staff and the judiciary at a click of a button.

In anticipation of the project the FRU has created an 'e-file' for each financial case issued in 2016. The file will contain sub-folders, so the Judge and their clerk can access each document with relative ease during any hearing.

We have created a separate email address to work alongside our current enquiry email account; the documents should be sent to cfc.efiling.fru@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk . Below is a list of documents that may be sent electronically:

Form's E, E1, E2
Form's H, H1
Questionnaires
Chronologies
Statements
Position Statements
Valuation Reports

The email should be clearly marked i.e. ZC16D09023 – SMITH – PETITIONER'S FORM E. This will help the team identify the document quickly and allocate to the case folder without any unnecessary complications. All the documents should be sent as PDF and not Word documents.

Any documents which are over 10MB can be sent to us using 'Egress Switch'. There is no fee to sign up; it operates very similar to Outlook. When you send an email from the account, the sender will get a receipt in their Outlook account. The recipient will receive an email to their Outlook account prompting them to log on to Egress; when they log on, they will have the option to download the attachment. We will keep all downloads in the e-file, which judiciary and admin staff have access to.

We will continue to use our current generic account [ cfc.fru@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk ] for general queries and listing financial remedy hearings.

If you have any queries regarding the e-filing or the Financial Remedies Unit, please do not hesitate to contact me directly at ryan.gallagher@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk

Ryan Gallagher
Financial Remedies Unit Manager
The Central Family Court