The government has quietly admitted it cannot meet its own target for bringing about the new era of no-fault divorce.
In a written response to a parliamentary question, courts minister Chris Philp MP said the initial deadline of this autumn for implementing the provisions of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 must be put back. The Ministry of Justice is now working on a commencement date of 6 April 2022.
It is now almost a year since legislation was passed to enable couples seeking a no-fault divorce after years of campaigning from lawyers calling for reform.
Philp said this year’s ‘indicative’ target was ‘ambitious’ and pointed out that the act provides for the biggest reform of divorce law in 50 years. Following the legislation getting Royal Assent, the MoJ has worked with the family procedure rule committee to identify what amendments are needed and create new practice directions, and these changes are now subject to consultation.
Officials have also begun to identify, design and build the necessary amendments to court rules and to amend the new online digital divorce service.
Philp said: ‘The Ministry of Justice is committed to ensuring that the amended digital service allows for a smooth transition from the existing service which has reformed the way divorce is administered in the courts and improved the service received by divorcing couples at a traumatic point in their lives.
‘Following detailed design work, it is now clear that these amendments, along with the full and rigorous testing of the new system ahead of implementation, will not conclude before the end of the year.’
Philp said the delay was ‘unfortunate’ but stressed the importance of getting procedural rules right and added that the extra time would be used to strengthen signposting to family mediation as a means to resolve arrangements for children and the division of assets.
The delay was revealed in response to a written question from Jane Stevenson, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton North East. There has been no announcement from the MoJ outside of the response and it is not clear if or when the delay would have been confirmed without the parliamentary question.
Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: 'While we’re disappointed at the delay to the reforms, we welcome the continued commitment to ensuring the reforms are fit for purpose. It is better to have a working system in place rather than forging ahead when there are known issues.'
Chancery Lane urged HM Courts & Tribunals Service to use the delay to ensure the digital platform is fully functional and issues affecting the online service, such as a recent 'bug' in the represented respondent journey, are promptly rectified.
Boyce added: 'We urge HMCTS to communicate clearly with the profession when there are issues with the digital service, outlining how it will fix any bugs in order to avoid delay. HMCTS must also ensure that there are fully developed and clearly understood contingency plans in place.'