How time flies when you’re having fun. Or even when you’re not. Can it really be nearly a year since the first divorce centres were opened? More importantly, this month is supposed to be when the process of transferring work to the centres is to be completed, thus bringing the whole of England and Wales under the new system.
To coincide with these events family law news sites have run a story giving us a ‘progress report’ upon the centres, or at least in respect of the Bury St Edmunds centre, which handles London and the South East – ie 40 per cent of all work in England and Wales. The information in the report is provided by HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS). It informs us that the work of all 45 London and South East courts has now transferred to the centre, which is receiving between 1,250 and 1,300 petitions for issue per week. Taking everything into account, we are told, the centre expects to issue upwards of 40,000 petitions every year, or 800 a week – (I will come to the reason for the discrepancy between the number received and the number actually issued in a moment).
All in all, the report is upbeat and progress seems to have been good (perhaps better than even HMCTS expected). For example, we are told that petitions are being processed (i.e. issued and sent out for service) within eight days of receipt, which is comparable to the time local courts used to take and suggests that my worries about cases taking longer to progress may have been misplaced. There have been some delays, for example an unspecified problem at the Acknowledgement of Service stage, but these have apparently been addressed. Certainly, if the ‘revised goal’ of processing all work within a maximum of two days of receipt by the end of December is met, then delay should obviously not be an issue.
So, all seems to be going swimmingly at the centre. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those who use it, including practitioners who should know better. The report tells us that in September no fewer than 18.4 per cent of petitions had to be returned unissued to those who had sent them in due to errors. Common errors were those old chestnuts: names and/or place of marriage differing from the details on the marriage certificate and omission of that essential document, the reconciliation certificate, in cases where the petitioner is represented. Hopefully, the centre is not returning papers for any trivial reason, as practitioners have often complained that the Legal Aid Agency and its predecessors have done, and it would be nice if they could contact the sender requesting that the problem be rectified (as with reconciliation certificates), rather than just returning everything lock, stock and barrel, thereby causing further delay.
So have all of my reservations about the new system been shown to be without merit? Well, not quite. For example, I’m still not sure how it would work if you had a query about your divorce (or your client’s divorce) and wished to contact someone at the centre to discuss it. Certainly, you are unlikely to have any relationship with staff at the centre, as you might do as a regular user of a local court.
Another issue arises with cases in which a hearing is required. We have been told that in such cases hearings will be listed at a local hearing centre and court users will have the opportunity to indicate where the hearing should take place, for example, at the same court as any Children Act application, more locally to where the parties reside, or at a more central location when the parties live in completely different areas. We have also been told that the Family Procedure Rules Committee would be considering changes to the D8 petition form and Form A financial remedy form so that a preferred hearing venue can be requested, if one is required (assuming the petitioner knows when they issue the petition that a hearing will be required). But as far as I am aware this has not yet happened. In any event, I still have a problem with a case proceeding in two courts simultaneously, so that judges will not be able to have the entire file in front of them when they conduct a hearing.
Otherwise, I suppose it is just the figures for the numbers of petitions being processed that make me uneasy. I understand the need these days for economies of scale, but it just seems that this sort of impersonal mass-processing seems to ‘devalue’ divorce, as if the parties involved are not important. Divorce seems to be just a commodity here, and there is no time to stop and remember that you are dealing with one of the most traumatic events in a person’s life. Such is progress.