Electronic bundles in the Family Court: Changes coming for Public Law Children proceedings

Nancy Williams Nancy Williams 11th November 2022

Electronic bundles in the Family Court: Changes coming for Public Law Children proceedings

Electronic bundles have become a way of life over the last three years. As with all things in litigation, there have to be rules governing how bundles must be prepared and used. And as with so many innovations of the last three years, there also have to be updates to those rules as our experience of using them develops.  

A big change is coming for public law children practitioners in relation to electronic bundles. As set out below, they have been exempted from various parts of the guidance relating to electronic bundles for the last year, but this will end this year and all family practitioners will be expected to produce compliant bundles from January 2023. The notes below are a reminder of the guidance for all practitioners, but also set out the changes for public law children proceedings from January 2023. 

Background 

In November 2021, “General guidance on electronic court bundles” was published updating guidance from May 2020. The November 2021 guidance aimed to ensure a level of consistency in the provision of electronic bundles for civil and family court hearings. It was supplemented in December 2021 by “Guidance on E-Bundles for use in the Family Court and Family Division” which tailored the November 2021 guidance, and also superseded the Financial Remedies Courts E-Bundles Protocol of 3 March 2020.  

The guidance 

When preparing a bundle for use in family proceedings, the guidance specifies the following: 

  • E-bundles must be provided in pdf format. 
  • The requirements set out in FPR PD27A paragraphs 5.1-5.3 regarding the page limit remains in place – the default limit is 350 pages and must only be exceeded with the permission of the court.  
  • All pages must be numbered (whether or not they form part of the substantive bundle or are contents pages or similar) starting at page 1 and continuing sequentially to the end of the bundle. Pagination must match both the pdf numbering and any hard copy bundle which is produced. This guidance superceded FPR PD 27A Para 4.2 which required that each section of a bundle be separately paginated. This is not to say that the bundle should not be divided into sections – it should – but the numbering is sequential rather than restarting at the beginning of each section.
  • The pagination should remain the same in later versions of an electronic bundle in the same proceedings (unless otherwise ordered by the court). If a bundle is updated for a later hearing then the new documents should be included in a new section at the end of the bundle – not added into earlier parts of the bundle.
  • This requirement was suspended in public law children proceedings because many local authority IT systems would require updating in order to comply. Instead of the whole bundle being numbered sequentially, FPR PD27A para 4.2 remained in place and each section of a bundle was individually paginated. However, from 1 January 2023 the suspension will be lifted and bundles will have to be paginated sequentially from beginning to end. 
  • There should be an index which contains hyperlinks to each indexed document.  
  • Each section of the bundle, and all significant documents, should be bookmarked and the bookmark should contain the page number of the document. This was suspended in public law children proceedings because of the issues with numbering referred to in 3. above. Once the suspension comes to an end, the bookmarking requirement will come into force. 
  • Any section of typing in a bundle which has not been created as an electronic text document must be subject to OCR (optical character recognition).
  • Any pages created in landscape orientation should appear in landscape and be capable of being read left to right.
  • No page should appear upside down. 
  • The default view for all pages should be 100%. 
  • The resolution of the bundle should not be greater than 300 dpi, and it should be electronically optimised so as to ensure that the file size is not larger than necessary.
  • Any additional pages which need to be added to the bundle after it has been produced should be added at the end of the bundle and paginated accordingly. This requirement applies to all bundles, including public law children proceedings despite the suspension to the general guidance on pagination. 

The guidance applies to all hearing bundles (including core bundles and authorities bundles which should also be compliant). The December 2021 guidance for family cases confirms that a core bundle, or multiple bundles, may only be produced in a family case with the permission of the court. Core documents should instead be marked by an asterisk in the index.  

 In respect of filing electronic bundles, the following guidance applies: 

  • For public law children cases proceeding on the public law portal all documents shall be uploaded to the portal.  
  • For financial remedy proceedings, where the case is on the Digital Contested Cases System (DCCS) all documents must be uploaded to the system. 
  • For all other cases (including private law children cases, public law cases not proceeding on the public law portal, and financial remedy proceedings not on DCCS, existing established arrangements for delivery of documents shall continue to be used).  

The above delivery arrangements may be modified in an individual case pursuant to a direction of the court.  

On 2 November 2022, HHJ Lewis at the Central Family Court sent out information about the changes to be made in public law children proceedings in January 2023. It appears still to be the case that some local authorities are going to struggle to comply, but there does not seem to be any suggestion that there will be a further suspension of the guidance so practitioners need to be familiar with the guidance and ensure that they comply with it. Producing a bundle for a hearing which is difficult to navigate because of the lack of pagination, or the failure to ensure that hyperlinks work, is a very quick way to frustrate a judge and could, in the worst case, mean that a hearing is not effective or that wasted costs are ordered.