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New rules have changed how breaking up a marriage is done. For those of you in that difficult position, here is some advice to help you through out.
With Covid-19 shifting most of our lives online, the appetite for legal issues to be dealt with online has accelerated. Paul Linsell (pictured below), partner and head of family law at leading law firm Boyes Turner, explains the significant step towards digital divorce that came into force in September when the courts service made it compulsory to use the online divorce portal to start a divorce.
HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has had a divorce portal for some time now. Until now it has been used voluntarily by family lawyers and people wanting to deal with the process directly themselves.
The change is that it is now the only way to start a divorce. Paper applications will no longer be accepted. All new applications for divorce must be made via the online portal, except for cases of nullity, dissolution of civil partnership and judicial separation.
As the petitioner in the divorce (the person filing for divorce), it is as simple as logging onto the portal, opening an account and beginning divorce proceedings by walking through the online forms presented. The portal guides you through each step of your application with online options such as uploading and retrieving documents. There are then email prompts when the respondent has completed their documents and options for the next stages.
As the respondent (the spouse receiving a request for divorce), an email will be sent from HMCTS stating that a petition has been submitted and that you must also create an account. As it stands, the respondent has to complete the online process alone, but this will change in due course to help respondents who may be uncomfortable using the new technology or simply need to relieve the pressure of the process.
With the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 coming into force in April 2022, there will be no need for the party seeking a divorce to establish fault by their spouse. This will make the process more amicable.
The current portal will be adapted to reflect the changes in the law, with a simplification of the language used also coming through. It is anticipated that this will make the process of online divorce easier still.
The divorce process can still be managed by a solicitor, who completes the forms and generally manages the entire process. It is a matter for each individual to decide, balancing the cost of using a solicitor against the added ease and peace of mind that a solicitor can bring.
At present, there are still some of the stages of the process or legal terminology that may not be so straightforward. Whilst errors in applications have reduced drastically (less than 1% compared to 40% with the old system), incomplete or incorrect answers will not allow the application to be processed and that can cause significant delay. It is hoped those issues will reduce further when the changes in law come into effect next year.
It is also important that the timing of forms being submitted in the divorce process is considered carefully. The impact of concluding a divorce (by obtaining what is currently called the Decree Absolute and what will become the Final Order when the terminology is updated) can be significant. It is often vitally important to ensure that all financial matters have been concluded, with a separate standalone court order in respect of the finances made, before proceeding with that final step.
It must also be remembered that the digital divorce process only ends the marriage itself and does not address the more complex matters such as child arrangements and financial arrangements. The majority of people going through a divorce will still need specialist assistance in ensuring those matters are properly dealt with. In divorces involving pensions, inherited wealth, businesses or other complex financial situations the experience of a solicitor will be particularly valuable.