The online divorce portal – bringing family law into the 21st Century
As with so many aspects of our lives, Covid-19 restrictions have forced family law online in the last year. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service have had an online portal for processing divorces in the works for years, but until relatively recently it has only been available to a select group as part of a testing pilot. The last year has seen the scheme rolled out to more and more groups and slowly building up the functionality. Whilst still somewhat restricted (a fairly temporary clunky solution exists for a respondent's solicitors to be joined into proceedings and assist their client), it is fast becoming the major way that divorce proceedings take place, replacing an out of date, overburdened, paper system.
According to official statistics more than 100,000 applications have been made using the system since it was launched quietly in April 2018 and about 80% of divorce applications are now made using the new system. It has become compulsory to deal with some aspects of tying up the finances after a separation using the new system (where you and your spouse have reached an agreement and are asking the court to crystallise this in a consent order) and over 300 judges have received training to approve requests for financial orders using the portal. Where divorce proceedings on paper could easily take well over a year from beginning to end, owing to an enormous backlog of post sitting in regional divorce centres, if no objections are raised the whole process can now take place within about 17 weeks (including the compulsory six-week contemplation period). Errors in applications have been reduced dramatically with official figures stating that only 1% of applications now have to be returned for correction of errors as opposed to 40% using the old paper system. One really useful function is the ability to upload a scan or photograph of the marriage certificate, where previously you either had to submit the original paper certificate, or pay for an additional ‘official’ paper copy (which increased overall waiting times).
As the petitioner, it is now a fairly easy process to create an account and begin divorce proceedings online. If you are the respondent you will receive a letter from the court directing you to create an account and providing you with a reference number and code which can be used to access your case online. Whilst the portal does provide some guidance as to how to complete each portion of the application and subsequent stages, the legal language used in some of the questions asked and available answers (and the legal reasons behind them) can still be confusing, and providing incorrect or incomplete answers can still cause delays or result in a faceless back and forth with the court staff managing the portal, often talking at cross purposes.
The new portal is a great way to speed up and economise divorce proceedings, however professional help and advice will still be invaluable in ensuring that things run smoothly at a notoriously difficult time in a person's life. In autumn this year things will be all change again as the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 comes into force, radically changing divorce law so that couples can divorce without any allegations of fault on either side. Litigants in person and professionals alike will have to get used to a revamped online portal implementing a new set of rules and procedures.
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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.