The government is closing some of its regional divorce centres as a result of work shifting online, the Gazette has learned. HM Courts & Tribunals Service has closed centres in Stoke, Wrexham and Port Talbot, and will begin closing venues in Bradford and Nottingham.
The regional centres opened in 2015 but have been heavily criticised by senior judges for delays and inefficiencies. A question mark over their future emerged last year, when family division president Sir Andrew McFarlane said the centres were being phased out and replaced by an online system based in the national Civil and Family Service Centre in Stoke-on-Trent. At the time a government spokesperson said no final decision had been made on the divorce centres. This week's announcement, sent to family law 'stakeholders', confirmed their fate.
HMCTS has been digitising the divorce application process as part of the government's wider £1bn modernisation programme. Yesterday's announcement states that 40% of new work is now issued online and processed in the service centre. From December the online service opened to lawyers.
HMCTS says: 'That shift has allowed us to start reducing our number of regional divorce units where the paper petitions have been issued and processed since 2015. Earlier this year we closed our venues in Stoke, Wrexham and Port Talbot. We have informed staff that we now intend to begin the process of closing our venues in Bradford and Nottingham with a view to having them closed over the next few weeks, starting with new applications.'
Centres in Newport, Liverpool, Southampton and Bury St Edmunds will remain open. HMCTS says: 'Later this year we anticipate that all new divorce petitions will be issued either directly online or via a digital by default process where petitions are lodged at a central point and then scanned onto our digital platform.'
Once the 'digital by default' process has been rolled out, HMCTS says the work will be processed by the service centre, which will continue to deal with all calls relating to the divorce process in the first instance.
HMCTS says: 'Our four remaining regional divorce units will remain as we reduce the legacy work already in the system. As that work reduces we will consolidate the remaining paper work into the venue in Bury St Edmunds with the [service centre] dealing with all new cases. At that point any legacy work will be transitioned into the Bury St Edmunds venue which will be our longer-term legacy site dealing wih legacy work and the small amount of work that does not have a digital journey. This includes at this stage dealing with judicial separations, contested applications and nullity applications.'
Financial remedy centres are currently being set up across the country. HMCTS encourages solicitors to make Form A contested applications to the centre where the action will be processed 'and therefore delinked from the divorce process'.