Sir Geoffrey Vos has been announced as the new Master of the Rolls, and will replace Sir Terence Etherton, who steps down on 10th January, 2021. The announcement was made by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Master of the Rolls is a Court of Appeal judge, who is also tasked with being the President of its Civil Division, and gives advice on civil justice matters and rights of audience. The Master of the Rolls is the second most important judicial post after the Lord Chief Justice.
The announcement could lead to changes in the family courts. Vos has a reputation for being outspoken and passionate about court reform, and is particularly keen to broaden diversity in the legal sector and introduce more technology into the court system.
At a Law Society lecture on the future of law in 2018, Vos predicted that technology would revolutionise the way the court system worked and trained lawyers:
“Social lawyers will need training in dealing with people, in social science, in civil rights, in what causes crime and family break-up rather than hard-edged law.
Human rights lawyers will need training in the relationships between citizens and between the citizen and the state.
Business lawyers will… need to understand the ever-more-complex regulatory regime that affects commercial life online: this will ultimately affect smart contracts, digital ledger technology and AI.”
Historically, family courts have been slow to implement technological advances. However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the system to use computers and virtual platforms increasingly, in order to ensure that documents are filed in time and hearings can take place during lockdown.
The wide technological variations across the country that remain today, as some courts have almost no online access while others have completed several virtual cases, will be a challenge for Vos.
And unlike commercial courts, which Vos is more familiar with, the use of tools like AI and predictive software highlight some very important human rights and child welfare policy questions, which complicate the modernisation of the family courts.
The current Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, was involved in the drive to push out remote hearings for family cases during the lockdown, and we may see Vos developing this initiative further when he takes over next year, with or without lockdown measures in place.
The Court of Appeal was also set to live stream family cases in an announcement made by the Ministry of Justice in March, but to date no hearings for these kinds of cases appear to have been streamed in the Court.
We wish Vos luck.