In various areas of the country a pilot system has been launched, enabling applications for divorce and civil partnership dissolution to be processed online. No doubt a national rollout will be considered after the pilot has been completed.
Given technological advances nowadays, many systems are moving online rather than remaining paper-based. For example, many banks only provide online statements now rather than sending you each month’s in the post, and transactions are also dealt with online. You can submit your tax return via the web and apply for a loan or a mortgage the same way, so why not bring the same approach to the legal system? I can certainly see the benefit to certain applications being dealt with online and, in particular, divorces.
Solicitors are now encouraged by certain courts to submit applications, statements and correspondence via the web and so, given that applying for a divorce is usually a straightforward procedure, it makes perfect sense that this too should be done online. In the vast majority of cases, divorces are not defended and so there is actually no need for either party to the marriage to physically attend the court building for hearings or otherwise. The average divorce involves different forms being filled out at the different stages of the proceedings and the Court considers these papers at the appropriate time, granting the divorce on that basis. Divorce is therefore in many cases effectively a paperwork exercise from a legal point of view – albeit perhaps not from an emotional one. Therefore, being able to divorce via an online system rather than by physically posting the documents to the court makes absolute sense. No doubt the internet option will be much quicker and smoother and all available at the click of a button.
There is much in the legal news at present about the courts being overburdened and any family lawyer will know that there can be significant delays with certain courts processing and approving applications, even if they are straightforward and agreed by all parties. If divorces can be dealt with online by software then this could reduce the need for paperwork checking and a person in the court office having to manually input all the information from the papers, something which can be quite time-consuming. The online approach could speed up the time it takes to get a divorce and free up the court staff to deal with other cases, thus reducing the backlogs we are currently facing.
However, what is not clear at the moment is how certain issues would be dealt with. What if a divorce is defended? What if the petitioner [the person who applies for the divorce] seeks payment of the costs of the divorce and this is not agreed? Presumably the parties would then still need to attend court and potentially produce statements to assist the court in determining the case. Is that something that would be possible online or would the court have to deal with this in another way?
Is the system easy to use? How are litigants in person finding the process? No doubt we will find this out in due course when a report on the pilot scheme is prepared. Whilst divorce paperwork is relatively straightforward and many people do deal with their divorces themselves, whether online or not, can we be sure the online system is sufficiently user-friendly? That has to mean both in terms of actually submitting the documents and in how it informs those not familiar with the process which ones are needed and what sort of information they need to include?
There have been, for some time now, adverts for unofficial methods of divorcing online and many people are understandably quite apprehensive about this. It is important to ensure that the divorce, whether done online or in the traditional way, is completed correctly. In addition to this, being able to complete the divorce online does not necessarily help you to sort out any issues relating to the children of the marriage or ensure you have dealt with the house or any other assets. With this being the case it is still important to seek legal advice from a specialist family lawyer who can help you with the specifics of your own particular case.