Divorce to be wholly online “within months”

McFarlane: Video hearings only suitable in simple cases

Every family law practitioner will have felt the effects of court modernisation in their daily practice within a year, with the remaining parts of the divorce process moving online within months, the president of the Family Division has declared.

He expected the “vast majority” of divorce proceedings to be handled online by the end of 2019.

Giving the keynote address at the annual Resolution conference, Sir Andrew McFarlane revealed work was underway to add decrees nisi and absolute to the existing automated scheme for online divorce “in the next few months”.

He said legal advisers and judges would be able to access the online service through a judicial interface: “Once the process is fully up and running, you, as solicitors, will be able to log on from anywhere, at any time, and see the state of an individual divorce case as it moves forward.

“You will also be able to file documents and communicate with the court and/or the other parties remotely through the system.”

On the proposed expansion of remote hearings enabled by video-link technology, he was cautious.

While telephone hearings were well established and could be extended immediately as “the norm” for straightforward ‘without notice’ cases, such as non-molestation injunctions, there were cases for which fully video ‘virtual’ hearings were not suitable – such as those involving money, children or domestic abuse.

He said such hearings “benefit significantly from the presence of the key players, be they the parties or the judge, being in the same place at the same time; this applies as much to what happens in the corridor outside court as it does to the court hearing itself”.

Sir Andrew said the scheme to issue divorce petitions online – which began in May last year – had received applications from 35,000 litigants-in-person; 55% of all petitions issued in the past 10 months.

Whereas the error rate found in paper divorce petitions was an “astonishing” 40%, that done online was just 0.4%, and 84% of litigants were satisfied with the process.

A pilot scheme for solicitors using online divorce had only just started, the judge said, but so far 436 applications had been received from 20 solicitors in 17 different locations. Firms involved were both large and small.

By the end of 2019 not only would the “vast majority of divorce proceedings… be conducted online” but those which were paper-based would be digitally scanned and inputted online.

Sir Andrew apologised for what he called the “unacceptable service” provided by the Bury St Edmunds, Liverpool and Bradford regional divorce centres. But he hoped “delay and inefficiency” would disappear now the online divorce process was administered at one of the two national courts and tribunals centres, in Stoke-on-Trent.

He said another aspect of online divorce was also proceeding: the financial remedy consent order pilot, which had received “over 250 applications from 17 solicitor firms”.

The scheme included notification to solicitors when consent orders were approved, and automatic payment handling, he said.

Sir Andrew highlighted a benefit of online forms as “the potential for the process to include ‘nudges’ at strategic points to provide onscreen background information on the court process and to suggest possible alternative routes to dispute resolution which may be of particular value to litigants in person”.

He expressed confidence in the work being done by HM Courts and Tribunal Service, who he said were experts who knew what lawyers, litigants and judges needed to “function effectively”.

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