Calls are growing for HM Courts & Tribunals Service to slash the £593 divorce fee given the process will be online and quicker under reforms coming into force next month.

A new digital service accommodating 'no-fault' provisions under the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act will be introduced on 6 April. The process is expected to be quicker - however, the £593 fee to file an application for a divorce will remain unchanged. 

Discussing the changes at a webinar hosted by co-parenting service Our Family Wizard, David Hodson, a member of the Law Society's family law committee, said it was a ‘scandal’ that the fee has not been reduced. ‘That’s fine if a judge is going to spend time on it and there’s paper. For an online process, [it’s an] absolute scandal and should be reduced,’ he said.

The Gazette asked other family lawyers, who concur.

Emma Nash, a family partner at Fletcher Day, said: '£593 is a lot to pay to get divorced. For some people, it is prohibitively high. It is now even more difficult to see how this fee can be justified as the divorce process has moved online cutting down the work that needs to be done by court staff and judges to review and process the petitions.

'When the [act] comes into force from 6 April the process will become even simpler as there will be no need to consider evidence of fault or separation and there will be no option for divorces to be defended. These changes should be reflected in a more appropriate, lower fee.'

David Lister, head of family law at Simpson Millar, said many court users consider the fee increase an unwelcome change in light of delays in the court system. 'There is a shortage of judges, waiting times are growing and those families affected by rising costs of living will now be put under even more pressure when separating, just as no-fault divorce comes into place and the system is supposed to be making separation less stressful,' he said.

Tony Roe, solicitor and family law arbitrator at Dexter Montague, raised a Freedom of Information request with HM Courts & Tribunals Service about the ‘true, underlying cost’ of the divorce process. ‘[HMCTS] failed to answer it, but it is thought that it is less than half the issue fee. The new process is simplified, and this should result in a cut in the court fee,’ he said.

The Ministry of Justice increased the application fee from £410 to £550 in 2016. It rose to £593 in 2021.

Peter Burgess, a partner at family boutique Burgess Mee Family Law, said the fee increases 'have always felt like an arbitrary attempt to extract more from people going through a difficult period, and it is hard to see them coming back down again despite the welcome reform to the system to make it more streamlined and less acrimonious'.

Vanessa Friend, a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, said the court system was chronically underfunded 'and it is very unlikely that HMCTS could fill the gap in their budget left by a reduction in fees'. While the court fee will remain the same, 'my hope is that clients will save money on legal fees as they will no longer be negotiating over the content of the petition', she said.

However, Natalie Lester, a senior solicitor in the family team at Debenhams Ottaway, said she was not opposed to the recent court fee increase.

'The divorce process has been online since 2019. During my practise in family law since 2010, I have seen a number of increases in the divorce court fee. Whilst there have been very significant delays with HMCTS in relation to contested proceedings, the online divorce process for straightforward matters has become speedier, easier and more accessible to the public. Parties on a low income or those who receive certain benefits may be eligible to apply for a fee exemption which means they are exempt from all or part of the fee,' she said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'All of the money generated from the divorce fee is spent on our courts and tribunals system – minimising the burden on the taxpayer. There are no plans to reduce it.'

The department says that by asking court users to pay more where they can afford to do so means it is able to fund areas where fees are not charged to vulnerable victims and users. Court users unable to afford a fee can apply to the fee remissions scheme, Help with Fees.

The current divorce service will be switched off on 31 March.