The country’s biggest regional divorce centre is taking 20 weeks to deal with consent orders, the Gazette has learned. One family lawyer says the long wait could have negative consequences for their clients. However, HM Courts & Tribunals Service insists the delay is temporary, caused by social distancing measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Processing dates and times for divorce work for Bury St Edmunds, the main centre for divorces from London and the south-east, state that district judge consideration of consent orders from date of receipt are taking 20 weeks.
Consent orders are legally binding agreements for dividing assets such as money, property, savings and investments.
Lisa Pepper, a family partner at London firm Osbornes Law, said consent orders are often about the family home. To reach settlement, clients will need a mortgage offer - but the offer will expire within six months and clients will have to reapply. ‘Some clients will be worried if their financial situation changes. What if income, given Covid-19, is not what it was a few months ago?’
Pepper said 20 weeks is a long time to wait ‘when [couples] are trying to do the right thing and settle out of court as the court wants them to’. Financial information may have changed by the time the judge considers the application.
A spokesperson for HMCTS said: 'There have been delays in processing paper divorce applications because we have had to temporarily reduce the number of staff in our offices due to coronavirus. Steps are being taken to speed up applications while our online divorce service continues to process more than 1,000 digital applications each week'
The Gazette was told that the delay should be temporary as staff have been provided with laptops to work from home.
Regional divorce centres opened in 2015 but have been heavily criticised by senior judges for delays and inefficiencies. HM Courts & Tribunals Service has closed some of the centres as more work is issued online. Bury St Edmunds will eventually become a longer-term ‘legacy site’ dealing with legacy work and a small amount of work that does not have a digital journey, such as judicial separations, contested applications and nullity applications.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.