The long-awaited online divorce procedure is here. Introduced the Ministry of Justice and trialled in selected areas, the option to file your divorce application, pay the fee and submit supporting documentation online is no open to everyone in England and Wales.
How does online divorce work?
The new online divorce service doesn’t offer an end to end divorce. What it does provide is an online portal to submit the divorce application, pay the £550 fee, and upload documentation. The portal can be used by individuals acting as litigants in person, and is designed to reduce errors and make this initial phase when a divorce is launched, as straightforward as possible.
Other steps in the process will be as before, but as stated by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, and Susan Acland-Hood, the Chief Executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service in a joint letter, the intention is to
“…develop other parts of the divorce process in a phased approach: Acknowledgement of Service; Decree Nisi; and Decree Absolute. We will test these in private beta (with a small number of selected applicants), before we finally join up the constituent parts to provide a fully transformed end-to-end digital service for divorce.”
The new system is not available for solicitors to use at present.
Successful trial results
Online divorce was trialled in a number of areas in England through 2017. More than 1,000 petitions were submitted this way, and 9 out of 10 people reported being satisfied with the online system. More importantly, the online divorce application process appears to have reduced the chance of errors in divorce applications submitted by individuals to almost zero. One of the problems with the paper-based application process was that it was open to human error. This in turn has led to the situation of potentially invalid divorces, which we blogged about a few weeks ago. The online system auto-checks dates and lengths of time to make sure the relevant requirements are satisfied.
Given that court staff are estimated to spend some 13,000 hours checking divorce petitions, the online service should reduce this significantly. The trial showed that there was a staggering 95% drop in the number of petitions returned because of errors.
Legal advice will still be needed
The online divorce service offers a straightforward way for individuals to commence the technical process of ending their marriage. What the online service doesn’t do is address the complex issues that need to be resolved around the divorce. Financial arrangements and agreements around any children of the marriage, who they will live with and how time will be split between parents will still need to be dealt with. In all but the most straightforward of relationships, it is likely that divorcing couples will still need to take legal advice to ensure the divorce settlement is fair and workable.
Will online divorce smooth the pathway for a ‘no fault’ divorce?
Of course, there are still a number of areas where divorce law urgently needs to be updated. On the 17th May the Supreme Court heard the appeal of Tini Owens against the decision of the Court of Appeal that her marriage had not ‘irretrievably broken down’. In the face of her husband’s apparent refusal to accept that the marriage is over, if the Supreme Court finds against her she must wait until 2020 before she can divorce on the grounds of 5 years’ separation. The case has highlighted more clearly than ever the need for a ‘no fault’ divorce.
Resolution, who have intervened in the Owens case, have been campaigning for a no fault divorce for some time. To introduce it would remove the need for couples to either wait 2 (or, where there is no consent, 5) years, or to establish ‘blame’ unless there is adultery or desertion. In a climate where we are encouraging couples, wherever possible to work together in divorce – using mediation or even collaborative law, with all the advantages these options bring to the table – it makes sense to take the ‘blame’ out of the equation.
Thomas Mansfield Family Law is a dedicated family and divorce law practice committed to achieving the best results for clients. If you’d like to discuss your own situation, call 020 3733 7128 to speak to one of our expert divorce solicitors.