The family solicitor who broke the news that divorce proceedings for London and the south-east would be centralised to Bury St Edmunds says that government plans for managing divorces online may not happen as quickly as expected.
Following reports in the national media of a pilot to allow divorce proceedings to be issued digitally ahead of a wider rollout in June, solicitor Tony Roe, principal of Berkshire firm Tony Roe Solicitors, said it would be wrong to think that a complete digitalised divorce process would happen any time soon.
He said: ‘At best only the petition may be available to complete online by the end of the summer, possibly. The government’s “agile methodology” approach to projects apparently means that new processes are built bit by bit, starting with the petition in this case.’
Managing divorces online is part of the Ministry of Justice’s £1bn blueprint for streamlined and largely digital courts, unveiled last year.
The ministry’s consultation paper stated that work had already begun to allow applications to be made and managed online, ‘removing some of the bureaucracy from often stressful and lengthy proceedings and simplifying cumbersome administrative processes’.
Roe said his enquiries had revealed that research has been carried out with ‘end users’, divorcing spouses, about how any problems with the present procedure can be best tackled. This includes working with a specialist accessibility centre to help ensure the service is compliant and accessible for users who need additional features to access the service.
Following conversations with HM Courts & Tribunals Service, Roe said an announcement on a pilot site was due ‘very shortly’. However, any such pilot will require minor rule changes through a practice direction. None has been published, Roe noted.
‘Excitement and expectation is growing in the family law community, but we need to be patient and await the modernisation programme which seems likely to occur step by step, starting with a likely pilot, a practice direction and only then the first digital petition,’ he added.
A spokesperson for the MoJ told the Gazette that announcements on the ministry’s plans will be made in due course. When asked if the ministry’s plans include provisions for ‘no fault’ divorces, the spokesperson said the law remained unchanged. At present, where a couple has been separated for less than two years, one party must cite fault with the other party.
Last month family group Resolution held a ‘lobby day of action’, whereby 150 family justice solicitors held meetings with MPs to discuss the need for a change to allow no-fault divorces.
Resolution member Felicity Chapman, an associate at Charles Russell Speechlys in Guildford, told the Gazette that she had seen clients come into her office shocked that they had to apportion blame if they wanted to start divorce proceedings within two years of separating.
Chapman said no-fault divorces would help to reduce conflict and allow couples to maintain their dignity. ‘I have had cases where the client came to me very much of the mind they wanted to do everything amicably and keep conflict out [for] the benefit of the children,’ she added.