Starting next month, HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s official rollout of eleven new ‘divorce centres’ around the country will begin. In practice, however, most of these centres have been operating across the country over the last year.
These centres will endeavour to streamline the process of divorce. They will be staffed by legal advisors and will make divorce more administrative than it has ever been before. The government claims that divorce applications could be handled in as little as 48 hours.
These reforms were heralded by the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby last year and are clearly a part of the process of evolving the family courts into a more streamlined efficient system.
This has, unsurprisingly, been criticised by some who believe that it trivialises marriage. Former Home Office Minister Ann Widdecombe has said that making divorce an administrative process is akin to “discarding an old carrier bag”.
I disagree with this assessment. In fact, I have spoken to several national media outlets about the centres such as The Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. As I explained in a conversation on BBC Radio 5 Live Drive, society is moving towards the attitude that divorce should not be acrimonious. Although I admit that some of these reforms are financially driven in a bid to cut costs, the idea of streamlining the process is a good one.
Divorce is essentially a paper exercise as it is. Judges are in great demand, particularly with the withdrawal of legal aid and the increase in the number of unrepresented parties in court, so it does not make sense that their time be taken up making sure forms are filled in correctly. The fact that this will be overseen by legal advisors is definitely a positive step.
These reforms do not undermine marriage. It is a sad fact that divorces occur and what is needed is to ensure that the process is as painless to all concerned, both spouses and children. The concern that a divorce might be acrimonious or protracted will not keep families together so why not try to do everything possible to make a difficult process less painful if possible. This is all the more important in a time of austerity when the financial resources available within the family justice system are limited and the courts are at breaking point.
At present there are no proposed changes to the actual divorce procedure and the grounds that one needs to rely upon to obtain a divorce.
Whilst the court may become more efficient, judges will still be required to make the important decisions in divorce. Apart from overseeing the granting of divorce decrees, they will also need to help resolve financial disputes even if it is only approving financial consent orders. They will also make decisions over the arrangements for children where agreement cannot be reached between separated parents.
Bringing a marriage to an end can often be highly contentious. People can become entrenched when it comes to sorting out finances or who should care for any children they have. Despite the increased awareness of mediation and other non-court methods of resolving these issues such as collaborative law and arbitration, many people are still ending up in court to argue about their issues. Obviously, these kinds of divorces are more complicated than a simple box-ticking exercise. While the paper work would still be handled by legal advisors, the actual contests would still need to be decided by a judge.
Another benefit of regional centres is that it will be easier to spot trends across the country. Particularly, cases of fraud like a famous example from last year. It was found that 180 Italian couples sought divorces across England by using a false English address to establish jurisdiction and to take advantage of the simpler divorce process in this country. Such wholesale frauds would be more easily identified across only 11 centres.
However, one concern I have about these centres is distance. There are 11 regional centres which may require many people to travel a long way to attend their local centre. For example, the Yorkshire centre is located in Bradford, but will cater to people across the county. In the South East, people living in London and the surrounding counties will all be dealt with by a new centre in Bury St Edmunds.
Divorces will have to be filed by post unless they are urgent and the over the counter resources will no doubt be substantially reduced. This will mean that much needed guidance will be less available in completing what is a complex form which addresses questions such as jurisdiction and the financial claims that you want to make.
We have offices all over the country and we deal with enquiries all the time about divorce, finances and children. They are complex issues which need to be dealt with compassionately and with experience.
Overall, I think these reforms have the right idea about how to handle divorce but there are still improvements to be made.
To listen to my full conversation on Radio 5 Live, click here. My segment begins at 01:27:50.