Following their 2015 launch, the divorce centre structures in England and Wales have struggled to maintain a consistent service level in processing divorces and associated applications. Each divorce centre was originally set up as a consequence of the impact of austerity on the Ministry of Justice’s handling of divorce work, with benefits sought from centralising work and delegating aspects of the work to legal advisers and thereby freeing up judicial time to consider other family law matters.
There are eleven divorce centres in England and Wales, with a centre in Bury St. Edmunds processing all divorce applications for London and the court east. Since opening, the Suffolk site has been a constant source of frustration for divorcing couples and their solicitors alike.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, figures provided by HM Courts and Tribunals Service revealed in 2018, it took on average 373 days from the issue of a divorce petition to pronouncement of decree absolute. This figure was a 9% increase from the previous year for a divorce centre.
In addition, the average time from issuing of petition to decree nisi has increased 17% to an average of 195 days. The further deterioration in service levels come as a reported 4% drop in staff levels up to the start of 2019.
The struggles of the Bury St Edmunds divorce centre reflect anecdotal concerns of many solicitors about the dangers of relying on administrative centres that appear to have been under-staffed and over-burdened from their inception.
Commenting on the divorce centre’s figures, partner Philip Hunter said, “It used to be that a client might have to wait 4-5 months for an undefended divorce, starting from the date the petition was issued. Now, one might guide a client that a period somewhere close to double this is probably more realistic. It is right to laud the work done to promote online divorce submissions, which has made great progress in the last 12-18 months. However, it seems that this progress continues to come at a cost to other areas of the divorce process. It is vital that we remember people are going through some of life’s most traumatic and difficult processes and the resources and support they required are afforded to them.”
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