Delays at the country’s biggest regional divorce centre reached unprecedented levels in 2018, figures obtained by the Gazette have revealed.
Average waiting times for each stage of the divorce process at Bury St Edmunds increased markedly last year, confirming many lawyers’ long-held fears about the centre’s ability to cope.
Bury St Edmunds is the main centre for divorces from London and the south-east. But since opening as one of 11 regional centres in 2015, the site has been a constant source of frustration for divorcing couples and their lawyers.
Figures provided by HM Courts & Tribunals Service, in response to a freedom of information request, reveal it took 373 days on average from the issue of petition to decree absolute in 2018 (up to the end of September). This was a 9% increase from 2017.
The eight-day wait for issuing the petition has more than doubled in a year, while the average time from issuing of petition to decree nisi has increased 17% to an average of 195 days.
Despite such struggles, the response also confirmed that the number of full-time staff dropped year on year from 75 to 72 at the start of 2019.
HMCTS told the Gazette that staff numbers have since gone up to 80 and performance has improved following this recruitment drive.
‘More broadly, we have increased the number of sitting days available in family courts in order to meet demand, while our online divorce service is speeding up the application process significantly,’ added a spokesman.
The struggles of Bury St Edmunds highlight concerns of many practitioners about relying on administrative centres that may be under-staffed and over-burdened.
‘I used to tell clients that from the petition being lodged to obtaining a divorce would take three to five months,’ said Jo Edwards, head of family at London firm Forsters. ‘Now I say eight to 12 months. Lots of work is being done on digitisation of the courts, but it is moving ahead of what is actually going on on the ground, where there are severe staffing cuts and judicial vacancies and a combination of factors that have created a perfect storm.’