Online divorce in the 21st century

Former Chancellor, George Osborne MP, announced in his 2015 Autumn Budget that £800 million would be made available for technology and online improvements in the courts, to bring “long-term savings and speed up the process of justice”.  The source of these funds came with some recrimination, as the new proposals were funded in part by the closure of court services across England and Wales, as part of the government’s ongoing austerity measures. These measures, combined with the demise of public funding and a general failure to maintain court infrastructure have seen real issues with access to justice up and down the land. Many within the court system, including judges, back office staff and family law practitioners have been crying out for help and waiting to see some results.

The first step made by the government has been a partial movement towards online filing of some court documents and bundles. Even this first, basic step is beset with problems, given issues with the size of some of the documents concerned and the ability to attach and send these via email.

However, by spring 2017, the Ministry of Justice hopes that even more progress will be made.  Last week, it was announced that Nottingham’s East Midland Divorce Centre will host a pilot scheme for online divorce filing. In an amendment to the Family Procedure Rules a new Practice Direction 36D details the framework for the pilot, which would start immediately.

However, true to form, the Ministry of Justice has so far failed to provide any detail on how the pilot scheme would operate, details of the online portal and other requirements as to qualification for the scheme.  Family practitioners up and down the land are left scratching their heads trying to understand how a pilot scheme might operate without any details and accessibility. The premature announcement of the pilot scheme, whilst certainly offering a welcome step in the right direction, represents a missed opportunity to ensure that users of the pilot scheme are “on side” with proposals.

The family courts have long stated their ambition to operate on paperless terms. The advantages of moving to a paperless operating process will make procedures quicker and easier for court users to file documents online, rather than attending court in person, in addition to the environmental benefits.

Many of us who engage the court system in family work on a daily basis, are very keen to move forward and maximise any potential use of technology. But for this to be maximised, a coherent approach to engage and enthuse users must be followed.

If you wish to discuss divorce proceedings with one of our expert solicitors, contact us on 01234 889777 to arrange a free consultation. Hunter & Uro Solicitors provide specialist family law advice to clients in Bedford, Northampton and the surrounding rural villages.

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