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Pippa  Allsop

Senior Associate, Michelmores LLP

The only way is up

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The only way is up

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Following a disappointing performance by divorce centres, Pippa Allsop assesses the potential of the online divorce service

The digital revolution started nearly fifty years ago, bringing us into the brave, new and all pervasive territory of the Information Age.

As ever, the lumbering antiquated beast that is the law has taken a little longer to embrace technological innovation in its methods and practices, but we are now at a stage where we appear to have caught up, or at least we are trying our very best.

The online divorce service was launched by HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in May 2018.

The cynical among us will undoubtedly measure the positive feedback that it has received so far against the dismal failure of the previous attempts to ‘streamline’ through the creation of the divorce centres.

In May this year, it was reported that the largest divorce centre, Bury St Edmunds, was taking more than twice as much time to even issue a petition in comparison to last year.

The average time from issue to decree nisi is currently just under 28 weeks, with the whole divorce process taking an average of one year and eight days. In practice, such delays are unprecedented.

The president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, expressed the view earlier this year that the 11 divorce centres had “not worked well”, a statement which immediately attained the accolade of one of the greatest understatements of all time.

No surprise then that they are being phased out over the next 12 months to be replaced entirely by the new online service based out of the new national Civil and Family Service Centre at Stoke-on Trent.

Hot on the heels of this is the extension of the Financial Remedies Court pilot scheme which has been in place at the Birmingham Court Centre since February 2018 and, due to the fact the pilot has been “entirely positive”, will now be rolled out to operate in nine additional areas.

This essentially means that some applications for a financial remedy can also be completed and progressed via the HMCTS online system.

The failure of the divorce centres has been blamed in part on HMCTS being “unable or unwilling to furnish them with adequate numbers of staff and judges”.

In an attempt to assuage the current cynicism and concerns, HMCTS has stressed that the problems and delays experienced at the “paper-based centres” will not transpire as the workload shifts over to the new online centre in Stoke.

However, the Ministry of Justice has also confirmed that the ongoing changes will result in staff cuts and that, overall, it is expected that the number of full-time equivalent court staff will “fall from 16,000 to 11,300 by the end of the programme”.

Many have expressed concern over the impact the loss of highly experienced court staff will have on what is already a sub-standard service.

To my mind, although there is some inevitable overlap, there is a key difference between streamlining processes and services.

While straightforward processes may be better dealt with online, the services provided to the user through support and assistance when those processes do not operate as they should require a ‘human element’.

There is no question that the movement towards online processes is a positive one. However, this has to be caveated with the recognition that implementation is key in ensuring the desired result is achieved in practice.

The failures of the court reform project thus far demonstrate the need for caution and forethought.

Learning from past mistakes and experience requires reflection, and any urge to forge ahead should be measured against the risks of doing ‘too much too soon’.

Hopefully though, given the current state of the system, the only possible way from here can be up.

Pippa Allsop is an associate at Michelmores michelmores.com