Court changes offer hope following divorce delays

Advice  |   1 September 2021

Written by
Caroline Burstein, Partner

Our latest family article features in the 6th September edition of the Evening Standard. The article focuses on the delays the pandemic caused divorce centres and the digital service for divorce applications.

During the pandemic, there were significant delays at divorce centres across the country. The court system has been battling to keep up with demand and Bury St Edmunds, the centre which covers London and the South East, reported delays of up to 14 weeks for divorce petitions and up to 20 weeks for financial agreements. This was a huge increase on the 4 week wait time experienced at the beginning of March 2019.

The HMCTS Reform Programme recently invested nearly £1bn to transform and modernise the court system. As part of this program, they have introduced a digital divorce project which enables parties and solicitors to make applications online rather than filling out and sending forms by post. Since the beginning of the pandemic there has been a surge in applications from professionals seeking to make use of these online facilities and avoid lengthy wait times.

Caroline Burstein, a Divorce Solicitor at Thackray Williams LLP, reports that “There has been a huge improvement with turnaround times. We are finding that applications for divorce are being issued in around 10 days and applications for financial agreements are taking around 4 weeks. The final application for Decree Absolute is usually turned around on the same day. This really helps reduce the stress experienced by people at what is already a very difficult time in their life”.

From 13 September 2021, it will become compulsory for legal representatives to use the digital service for all divorce applications. It will still be possible to submit a paper-based application if you do not have a solicitor or if you are applying for a financial agreement.

Paper-based applications for divorce are met with an automated response from the court Due to coronavirus we might take longer to answer your email. We are sorry but we cannot provide updates on how your case is progressing”. The new online system allows users to track their case and provides reassurance that the paperwork has been safely received by the court and has not been lost or delayed.

Family law is also due to experience another huge development. The “No Fault Divorce” is due to be introduced in Spring 2022. Rather than citing adultery or unreasonable behaviour or alternatively waiting for at least 2 years separation, the court will now accept a brief statement from one party simply explaining why they feel the marriage has irretrievably broken down. There will be no option to defend or contest the divorce. Divorcing couples will even be able to submit a joint application together. Archaic Latin phrases such a “Decree Nisi” and “Decree Absolute” will be replaced by far more relatable terms such as “Conditional Order” and “Final Order”. The new system also applies to dissolution of civil partnerships. Caroline from Thackray Williams says “This is a very welcome change. It should really take the sting out of those initial conversations about formalising parties’ separation and allow them to focus on far more important matters such as co-parenting and reaching a financial agreement”.

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