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Resolution updates members on divorce centre changes

Resolution has reported that it has recently met with HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) about current and future moves to central divorce centres. HMCTS have indicated that they would be keen to work with Resolution to answer common questions and find solutions to any problems arising as a result of the changes.

According to Resolution (and confirmed by HMCTS), the current plan is that each of the divorce centres will be fully operational as follows:

The actual date from which to start sending petitions to the new centre may vary between courts, so practitioners are advised to look out for communications in and from your local courts.

It is intended that the Central Family Court will remain a point of entry for financial remedy cases, and emergency or urgent divorce petitions.

It is expected that the majority of financial remedy applications (i.e. those that do not require a hearing – typically applications by consent) will be handled by DJs on site at the divorce centres, though arrangements have been put in place to share work with other hearing centres where necessary.

Each of the divorce centres will operate on the basis of a designated catchment area, but petitions from outside of the catchment area will be accepted at other centres if a reason is given.  This will be kept under review until any workload changes have been assessed and understood.

You can attend in person at one of the centres during counter opening hours to issue a petition with or without a financial remedy application but it will go into the ordinary queue unless urgent.

In time, civil partnership dissolution applications will also be required to be sent to the same centres, but the timetable for this is not yet confirmed save in relation to the North East where civil partnership dissolution applications should be sent to Durham, Bradford or Doncaster.

The Family Procedure Rules Committee will be considering changes to the D8 petition form and Form A financial remedy form so that your clients can indicate where they would prefer hearings to take place, and why, if one is required.   If there is any dispute over the venue for hearings, this will be dealt with in the usual way by a DJ at the divorce centre.

There are no legal or other changes (no changes have been made or are currently proposed to primary or secondary legislation) which affect the ability to issue urgent petitions at local hearing venues, for example, where there is a jurisdiction race, or other urgent applications.  

All family court venues that have DJs on site, including the Central Family Court, will continue to accept urgent petitions and applications, and will retain the facility to issue.  We have asked, on behalf of our members, that Resolution has input as to how this will work in practice.

However, concern has been expressed by some at the lack of progress, in particular, in respect of information to the public, plans for the Centre for London and urgent applications. Tony Roe, of Tony Roe Solicitors, who has submitted a series of Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Justice about the plans for divorce centres, commented:

"In a previous FoI request response, the MoJ promised 'consultation/communication with stakeholders'. We have heard nothing more from the MoJ about any consultation so it is to Resolution's credit that it has met with and lobbied the HMCTS for more information.

"In the response to our most recent (third) request there is nothing about consultation, and little about communication or guidance to the profession or public. To say that 'posters will be displayed in local courthouses' is woefully inadequate. Especially with a growing number of litigants in person, people need accessible and clear information without having to turn up at a court which will not issue their petition. The MoJ promising that it 'will ensure adequate local communications plans are in place prior to implementation' ignores the fact that the new scheme is in operation in the Midlands and North West this month.

"Meanwhile, Bury St Edmunds is now the confirmed venue for the Centre for London and South East workload. However, the plans for London and the South East remain in development and it is not expected to be fully live until October at the earliest.

"The MoJ has told us that 'guidance on urgent applications will be made available to all courts in due course'. We are yet to hear what this guidance will be, particularly in view of the fact that in a number of courts, such as the Family Court at Reading, counters are open by appointment only."