Divorce proceedings can be one of the most stressful and financially draining life events many people endure. The process can take anywhere from a few months to a few years if the divorce involves arrangements for finances or if one party defends the proceedings.
Those seeking a divorce must complete a paper divorce petition and send it to their regional divorce centre for consideration. Petitions must also be sent to spouses and they are expected to complete an acknowledgement within seven days, confirming whether they agree to the divorce or intend to contest it. This is a very short time limit which often does not give respondents the chance to seek legal advice.
The cuts to court services and a decrease in legal aid funding for family cases has increased the delays and costs throughout the system. Since April 2014, nearly all family law advice has been removed from the legal aid scheme. This means people can no longer get funding for divorce or child arrangements proceedings unless they have been a victim of domestic abuse or the child is at risk of harm.
This has led to an increase in petitioners (the party starting court proceedings) representing themselves through court proceedings as they cannot afford to instruct a solicitor. Unrepresented parties often do not understand the court process. The court service records that every year up to 40% of paper applications are rejected due to the forms being completed incorrectly. This lead to the form being simplified in August 2017 in order to make it easier for litigants in person.
The government launched a pilot scheme in December 2016 which would allow those seeking a divorce to do so using an online system. The scheme was introduced in the hope that the process would be easier for those without legal representation. The online system offered assistance with completing forms. The petitioner would then need to print the form and send it to court. HMCTS extended this service in 2018, so that the application can be completed entirely online. Submitting the form, sending the relevant documents, and payment can now all be completed through this system.
A second objective of the new online system was to decrease the volume of paper applications and to decrease the waiting time overall. The online method is only available where the divorce is not defended. As defended proceedings are rare, it is hoped that within the next few years, it could save the court system approximately £250 million.
Since its introduction, there have been other benefits to the new scheme. The number of applications returned because of errors has drastically reduced by 90%. There has been an increase in positive feedback, with people no longer worrying about their applications being ‘lost in the post’. The system as a whole is a lot less complicated, with people ‘welcoming the simplified, streamlined and easy to understand system which delivers their application instantly.’
Many online divorce companies have appeared offering their services to complete the online divorce petition for a fee.
On the face of it, it may seem that this system has improved divorce proceedings for many people. However, the divorcing couple will still have to go through the court system, and there is no avoiding the timescales that must be complied with. These timescales include waiting for the court to grant the decree nisi (the first order of divorce where the court confirms that the petitioner has proved the reason for the divorce) and then waiting 6 weeks and 1 day before the final order of divorce (the decree absolute) can be applied for.
In addition, there is no guarantee that the online system will be flawless. It was just last year that the Ministry of Justice had to apologise for an error in one of the forms. The error meant that miscalculations were made when entering financial information into the system, resulting in an overestimation of people’s wealth. This miscalculation was then used in deciding the financial settlements between the divorcing couples. Ultimately, this mistake could have been avoided if the traditional paper application had been used.
Time will tell as to the success of the new online system. For now, it can be seen as a simple alternative to the paper application. Although there is no guarantee that the duration of the divorce proceedings will be decreased, by rolling out a systematic guide to completing the application online, it can be said that the new system may be friendlier to litigants representing themselves in divorce proceedings.
This blog post was contributed to by Jenna Routledge. Jenna is a final year MLaw Student at Northumbria University. Jenna enjoys going for long walks in the countryside with her dog, Dora, and spending her free time traveling. She is currently planning her next adventure to South Asia.