What is changing?
HMCTS have had the divorce portal for some time now, being used by family lawyers and by people wanting to deal with the process directly. The change is that it will now become the only way to start a divorce. A transition period has begun and paper applications will continue to be processed until the 4th October 2021, but no new paper applications will now be accepted. With effect from the 13th September, all new applications for divorce must be made via the online portal, except for cases of nullity, dissolution of civil partnership and judicial separation.
How does the online portal work?
As the petitioner in the 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 easy 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, 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 pressure of the process.
How will ‘no fault divorce’ change things?
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 easier still.
Do you still need a solicitor for the divorce?
The divorce process can still be managed by a solicitor, who completes the forms and generally manages the entire process. However, many people are now choosing to deal with the divorce process themselves. It is a matter for the individual to decide, balancing the cost of using a solicitor against the added ease and peace of mind the 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 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.
This article was first published by Boyes Turner an is reproduced with permission.