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Complete digitalised divorce process still some way off

MoJ working on online tool supported by formulae to assist separating couples

The Times recently ran a piece (subscription required), Online divorces to spare couples time and trouble, which stated that couples will be able to divorce online this year under plans that could open the way for the abolition of fault-based grounds for ending marriage. Ministers, it said, are preparing a pilot project to allow divorce proceedings to be issued digitally for the first time, in a move to save time, paperwork and stress for thousands of people. More than 110,000 divorce proceedings were begun in 2015. The plan, backed by England's most senior family judge, Sir James Munby, will be tested before being introduced across England and Wales in June.

Therefore, will paperless centralised online divorce be available within six months in England & Wales? The summary of reforms in last September's MoJ consultation paper, "Transforming our justice system" said that work had already begun by then to allow divorce applications to be made and managed online. It expressed the aim of removing some of the bureaucracy from often stressful and lengthy proceedings and simplifying cumbersome administrative processes.

The Court Service has now indeed begun to look at how it can build and roll out an online system and a small pilot is expected to commence shortly. However HMCTS is not publicly committing to any date for when a full online system will be available to the general public.

Enquiries have revealed that research has been carried out with "end users", divorcing spouses, about how any problems with the present procedure can be best tackled. This includes working with a specialist accessibility centre to help ensure the service is compliant and accessible for users who need additional features to allow them to access the service, such as using screen readers.

Family law solicitor and arbitrator, Tony Roe, who made a series of FoI requests of the MoJ, and whose research broke the news that Bury St Edmunds (BSE) would be the single divorce centre for the London & the South East, has spoken to HMCTS in the light of The Times' story.

Roe said:

"It would be wrong to think that a complete digitalised divorce process will happen any time soon. At best only the petition may be available to complete online by the end of the summer, possibly. The Government's "agile methodology" approach to projects apparently means that new processes are built bit by bit, starting with the petition in this case. It seems that family modernisation is leading the way being one of a small number of similar digital projects involving, for example, probate and tribunals.

"It has been decided that there should be a pilot site and an announcement on this will be made very shortly. However, any such pilot will require minor rule changes via a Practice Direction (PD). As yet, (3 January), no such PD has been published.

"Excitement and expectation is growing in the family law community but we need to be patient and await the modernisation programme which seems likely to occur step by step, starting with a likely pilot, a PD and only then the first digital petition."

Meanwhile, the MoJ has confirmed that it is also working to develop an online tool supported by formulae to assist separating couples and help provide confidence in making private financial arrangements on divorce. Officials will work with practitioners to develop and refine this tool, which will be part of wider work to support and incentivise separating and separated couples to make their own arrangements wherever possible. The confirmation was contained in the MoJ's report on the implementation of Law Commission proposals (in respect of the Commission's 2014 report on Matrimonial Property, Needs and Agreements) at para 48. For the MoJ report., click here.