Family lawyers are worried couples may not be able to divorce after being notified that the digital portal they must use for applications will close soon due to upcoming reforms.
Practitioners logging on to the MyHMCTS online service today were shocked to discover a message stating that the divorce service will close soon due to changes in divorce legislation.
A new system implementing the provisions of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act, which will usher in a new era of no-fault divorce, comes into force on 6 April.
The notice, headlined ‘Divorce Service’, reportedly says: ‘This service will close soon due to changes in divorce legislation. Submit your saved application as soon as possible so they do not get returned. For new applications, consider waiting until the replacement service is launched – otherwise you may have to submit them again.’
Tony Roe, solicitor and family law arbitrator at Dexter Montague, described the situation as ‘wholly unsatisfactory’ and 'shambolic’.
He told the Gazette it was unclear whether HMCTS would accept paper applications during the period that the digital service is closed, and whether practitioners will be able to seek consent orders.
Peter Burgess, a partner at Burgess Mee Family Law, said: 'It is obviously very worrying and not at all helpful if there is a "gap" between the two services, into which clients who require an urgent turnaround may fall. It is also not clear if paper petitions can still be submitted in urgent cases if there is a gap. Use of the portal was mandated from last year, but the relevant practice direction does provide for that rule to be suspended if there is an outage.'
The Gazette understands the service with existing arrangements will be switched off a week before the new provisions come into force. A user guide explaining what people should do when the current online service is switched off will be published imminently.
Last year ministers revealed they had to put back their initial deadline for implementing the new provisions, saying the Ministry of Justice was ‘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’.