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HMCTS provides more details of Divorce Centre for London and South East

Service says that 40% of petitions are returned because of errors

A recent question and answer session has provided further information about how the new divorce centre at Bury St Edmunds will function to serve the needs of London and the South-East. 

Her Honour Judge Lynn Roberts (Circuit Judge with responsibility for the divorce centre for London and the South East) and John Miller, HMCTS project leader, were panel members along with His Honour Judge Martin O'Dwyer, head of the Financial Remedies Unit. Chair of London Region Resolution. Margaret Heathcote presided over the session, held at Charles Russell Speechlys on 26 May.

Family law solicitor and arbitrator, Tony Roe, who made a series of FoI requests of the HMCTS, and whose research broke the news that Bury St Edmunds would be the single divorce centre for the London & the South East said:

"For the first time HMCTS has begun to engage in a face-to-face dialogue with family law solicitors generally. This is to be welcomed. The scale of the task should not be underestimated. HMCTS says that the new hub at Bury St Edmunds will eventually deal with just over 40% of work in England & Wales and accepts that this will be ambitious.

"HMCTS hopes for economies of scale, not to mention a better service. Indeed, the Service said that there was a backlog of 600 petitions in Brighton and Guildford going back three months and it was decided to transfer the work of those courts to Bury St Edmunds now.

"Transfer of work from London was planned for June but is not likely to occur until July.

"HMCTS has quoted an alarming 40% of petitions which have to be returned for correction to solicitors' firms owing to errors in drafting or procedure, for example, failure to enclose issue fees, lack of signature or missing/incorrect details. It will pay practitioners to check and have someone else double check, all petitions they plan to file.

"What is clear is that the new legal advisers, who will adopt some of the functions previously carried out by district judges, must not form a judgment on the facts relied on within petitions. HMCTS assures us that family law solicitors will not be turned away from any family court if they have an urgent petition or application. It says that the solicitor submitting the need for urgency will be trusted. Let's hope that this happens, especially where there is little or no counter service available."

The Law Society is running a series of three seminars on the centralisation of divorce courts in London, on 18 June and then Birmingham and Manchester". For details, please click here.

An information sheet was provided to attendees. Its contents were as follows:

Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre, will issue broadly 40,000 divorce petitions per year. The guiding principle is that only cases that require a hearing will be transferred to the parties' preferred court.

Our aim is for all work to be processed on the day of receipt or within 48 hours at the latest. This is a challenging ideal but is achievable once the Centre is fully staffed and operational. We therefore anticipate achieving this service level from October 2015.

Legal Advisers will work at the Centre and will be responsible for deciding if petitions should be listed for pronouncement or for giving directions on the way forward if they consider that pronouncement is not appropriate at that time. District Judges will give directions in contested cases and will consider consented financial remedy applications. District Judges are also currently responsible for considering service related applications (i.e. applications for bailiff service, deemed service or to dispense with service).

The Centre will issue all divorce petitions with the exception of urgent matters, which can still be issued from local courts. Most undefended divorce work will be retained at the Centre. Any defended proceedings or undefended cases requiring a hearing will be transferred to the parties' preferred court. Cases where parties wish to attend pronouncement to dispute costs or to attend for any other reason will be transferred to their preferred court for pronouncement.

Urgent Petitions
Provision has been made for the current divorce courts to issue urgent petitions, and national guidance is being developed that will define "urgent" work. Obvious examples are section 37 related cases and those cases where it is imperative that jurisdiction is established speedily (i.e. divorce race). There will be other matters that parties consider to be urgent, and the Family Procedure Rules Committee are considering amendments to the Petition application form so that urgency (and a preferred location for any hearings) can be expressed in writing. Local courts will continue to process work that Applicants consider to be urgent in the meantime.

Financial Remedy Applications
Consent Applications
District Judges sitting at the Divorce Centre will review all consented financial remedy applications. They will approve many applications (possibly subject to clarification of the agreement) and will transfer any that they consider require further consideration by judges at courts local to the parties or applications that they consider require an attendance.

Contested Cases
The Divorce Centre will issue applications, serve documents and fix directions appointments at the Applicant's preferred court.

The Central Family Court
Provision is being made for complex financial matters to be issued directly with the Central Family Court, where special arrangements are being put in place, meaning that parties will have the option of issuing appropriate cases directly with the court, subject to certifying complexity.

Movement of Work to the Divorce Centre
Work is being transferred from the 45 divorce courts in London and the South East to the Divorce Centre on a phased basis. By October 2015 all undefended Divorce work, with the exception of urgent matters will be processed through the Divorce Centre.

As of 25 May, the work of 28 South East courts has transferred to the Divorce Centre, these courts are:

Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire – Bedford, Hertford and Luton
Cambridgeshire & Essex – Cambridge, Chelmsford, Colchester, Peterborough and Southend
Kent – Canterbury, Dartford, Maidstone, Medway, Thanet and Tunbridge Wells
Norfolk & Suffolk – Bury, Ipswich, Kings Lynn and Norwich
Surrey & Sussex – Brighton, Chichester, Eastbourne, Guildford, Hastings, Horsham, Reigate, Staines, Watford and Worthing.

Communications are being issued to parties broadly two-weeks prior to work transferring. This notice period is designed to avoid spikes in workload i.e. to ensure a smooth flow of work into the Divorce Centre. We currently anticipate that the Divorce Centre will start to process work from the London courts from July.

Issues Arising
Errors in Petitions. The movement of work from courts to Divorce Centres has highlighted significant issues with errors in the completion of applications for divorce petitions; nationally, broadly 40% of petitions have to be returned for correction. Adoption of the attached checklist is being considered, practitioners may find it helpful to use it as a guide in the meantime.

Cases Issued in County Courts. The Divorce Centre is receiving process in cases that were issued before work from courts transferred. Practitioners should send any process and correspondence to the court that issued the petition in the first instance.

Divorce Centre Contact Information

Royal Mail 
Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre,
2nd Floor, Triton House,
St Andrew's Street North,
Bury St Edmunds
IP33 1TR


Document Exchange: Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre, DX 97640 Bury St Edmunds

Telephone: 0344 892 4000