Councils requesting care and supervision orders will be required to upload every document relating to a child’s case onto a new online portal, HMCTS (Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service) has said.

The confirmation came after this site sent in a series of questions to HMCTS, for an online event the court body held on 23 January highlighting digital reforms in child protection and adoption cases.

The panel included Ed Owen, HMCTS’s Communications Director, Emma Petty, the Service Manager for the HMCTS reform project and Deputy Service Manager Jason Lewellyn.

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Answering our question about whether local authorities would need to upload every document relating to a public family law case throughout the life of that case to make sure records were accurate and complete, Emma Petty said:

“It’s certainly our aim. By looking at the demo, you can see how easy it is just to go to your browser and upload the relevant documents.”

She added, “It’s really important to treat that case management system they have access to as the digital file, and have all of the information in the one place that everyone can access.”

We also asked whether public family law applications would have to go through an online vetting process to make sure they were appropriate. In response to this question, Emma explained that it would be the local authority who would submit the application and as part of the online process there would be “an element of validation”, and “mandatory fields” which local authorities would have to fill out during the submission process.

However, emergency applications would be unrestricted, allowing councils to submit these with little to no scrutiny during the uploading stage. Emma went on to say that once the digital service was in place, emergency applications would continue to be vetted by the court in the first instance.

We sent in two further questions which were not answered live:

  1. If councils upload documents, what recourse will there be if any errors are found inside those documents, and if they can be edited, how will those changes be recorded?
  2. There is an enormous challenge at the moment with factual inaccuracies inside family court documentation, which can have life altering effects on families and children, as the system currently does not offer a proper pathway to rectify those errors. Will the new system aim to address that challenge and if so, how?

During the conference the HMCTs panel confirmed that the service could not be used for all child proceedings. Only requests for care orders, supervision orders and emergency protection orders will be able to be submitted through the portal.

This piecemeal approach is likely to cause concern among researchers, as elements of a child’s case could go unseen, or get overlooked during proceedings.

Several more questions were asked during the event, and included whether the new online system would require councils to input form data manually rather than the ability to upload that form as a whole document.

Miss Petty said that manual input for forms was often required to unlock the various tools available inside the new portal but that the digital team at HMCTS would be responsive to feedback about whether the measure increased councils’ workloads.

Jason Lewellyn explained that while the process may initially be more time consuming, it would speed up the life cycle of the case as all of the data would then be available in one place and much quicker to find.

Another question asked was how the service planned to deter judges from printing out bundles and using the new portal in a system where, culturally, digital innovation had been resisted. Emma said the service had been engaging with a judicial working group to try to provide an online service that was user friendly to everyone.

Not all of the questions sent in were answered during the session, but HMCTS has confirmed via email that answers to those questions will be offered in writing on the HMCTS website shortly, with a first draft of those answers expected next week.

While the service is still only running pilots in selected areas and courts, the next phase of the reform programme will begin in March, with HMCTS sending out email notifications to councils nationwide about when the service will be ready for use, and information on how to register.

Many thanks to the panel for answering our questions, and to Indie at HMCTS who helped us send the questions through and answered our queries about the event.