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Digital Divorce Sounds Great, But Don’t Skip Getting Advice

At midday on Sunday the tranquillity of my bank holiday weekend was disturbed by an email from GOV.UK. There’s clearly no peace for the wicked. Clicking the link in the email I was taken to a press release from HM Courts & Tribunals Service, the Ministry of Justice, and Lucy Frazer QC MP (the latter being Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice). The release breathlessly announced that: “The stress of applying for a divorce could be eased thanks to a new online service that removes the need for paper forms.”

The service, of course, is the new ‘fully digitised’ divorce application, which was launched on the 1st of May and which enables the whole divorce process to be completed online, including payment and uploading supporting evidence. The release tells us that:

“More than 1,000 petitions were issued through the new system during the testing phase – with 91% of people saying they were satisfied with the service.”

And that:

“…this simpler and less technical online service has already contributed to a 95% drop in the number of applications being returned because of mistakes, when compared with paper forms.”

The aforementioned Lucy Frazer, commented:

“Allowing divorce applications to be made online will help make sure we are best supporting people going through an often difficult and painful time.

“More people will have the option of moving from paper-based processes to online systems which will cut waste, speed up services which can be safely expedited, and otherwise better fit with modern day life.”

It all sounds quite wonderful, and perhaps it is, but before we get too carried away with this brave new world there is one major thing we have to consider: most users of the system will still need some proper legal advice.

There are many possible issues that users could run into if they don’t get proper advice, but here are just three obvious examples:

Firstly, in divorce petitions alleging adultery there is the issue of whether or not to name the ‘co-respondent’, i.e. the person with whom you allege your spouse has committed adultery. Naming the co-respondent is optional – the requirement to name them, if their identity was known, was abolished many years ago. The divorce can still go through on the basis of your spouse’s adultery without them being named. However, as any practising family lawyer will attest, many petitioners are eager to name the co-respondent, often as some form of ‘retribution’ for what they have done. I recall often trying to persuade clients against this course of action, as naming the co-respondent can make the divorce unnecessarily more complicated. For example, the co-respondent has to be make a party to the proceedings, and has to be served with the papers. Without proper advice many petitioners are likely to make the mistake of naming the co-respondent when there is no need to, thereby causing themselves a lot of additional stress and problems (concern was recently expressed that the new divorce forms actually encourage petitioners to ‘name and shame’ adulterers).

Secondly, there is the issue of the costs of the divorce. Even if you do it yourself you will have to pay the court fee on the divorce petition (unless you are entitled to an exemption), and this currently stands at £550, a not unsubstantial sum for many. You can ask the court to order your spouse to pay your costs, and even the co-respondent, if you have named them. But should you do so? Might claiming costs make things more complicated, by encouraging the respondent not to cooperate, or even to defend the divorce? You may actually end up wishing you hadn’t claimed costs. Whatever, this is an issue upon which you should really get advice.

Thirdly, many people who do their own divorce without legal advice may not appreciate that there is a connection between the divorce and the financial settlement, and that it may not be in their interests to finalise the divorce by applying for the decree absolute until the financial settlement has been sorted out. Ending the marriage has consequences, for example in relation to the rights of a spouse who does not own the matrimonial home, and in relation to pensions. It is therefore absolutely essential that anyone applying for a decree absolute knows and understands the consequences for them of ending the marriage, before they apply.

Many people who use the new online divorce process may do so without taking proper legal advice, encouraged by the ease of use of the system. However, if they do so they may be taking unnecessary risks.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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  1. spinner says:

    A competent chat bot embedded in the web page today could talk a user through those three issues whilst they are filling out the form online.

  2. spinner says:

    Google Duplex is a great example of how people will interact with context aware AI’s in increasingly complex situations.

    I don’t see why in a few years time someone filling in the online form for divorce cannot also have a chat session running with Google Duplex linked up to a legal AI that has analysed by then all the online documents from hundreds of thousands of UK divorce cases and their outcomes. Given this service would likely be free at the point of use it would be able to answer a large number of peoples basic queries and maybe as time went on more complex queries before they felt the need to contact a solicitor.

  3. Smileygirl says:

    I too thought getting a divorce on line seemed the simple, sensible thing to do however….
    … my ex husband and I ‘just agreed’ that we would sort the finances out when the children hit 18 and got the dissolving of the marriage ‘out the way’. We agreed that we would be fair in all dealings as we’d seen too many acrimonious breakups…”look at us being all adult!”
    We were married for 20 years, have now been divorced for 2 ( I did all the paperwork all on line, easy peasy but no agreement was made for the children or finances).
    I earn at best half of my husbands income, as I am a school worker and he works in business sales. I have paid the mortgage and all running costs of my home for the last almost 7 years. We are still both on the mortgage.
    The ex has paid child maintenance (£350 per child pm), stopping all money for my son suddenly when he hit his 18th birthday (4 years ago).
    We split up 18 months after buying our home (2011) so there wasn’t any equity to split at the time so we agreed that I would continue in the family home with the children.
    He is now living in a new house with his partner, having lived in her house from almost the very the start of the split. (he left me), which he co owns with her,
    He earns in excess of 50K, Mercedes company car etc. She also works.
    I earn 23k on a temporary school contract (renewable each year, but makes credit hard).
    At one point I worked 2 jobs just to pay the bills.
    Now the house is up for sale (at his request) as our daughter has turned 18.
    There is approx. 200k of equity, after 7 years from purchase (there was approx 20k – 40k equity accrued when he left) .
    I have 30k of debt, at least half of which I took on as my share of the matrimonial debt when he left.
    I haven’t been able to pay it off (I only agreed initially as he over paid maintenance at the start – £900 pm – but that soon changed), but I have kept my head above water….just!
    I proposed to him at our last meeting that we take the 30k debt, and all fees off top when the house sells and split the remainder 50/50 – hugely fair I thought
    He has refused ‘saying he doesn’t see why he should pay my debt’.
    I have no way of buying a property, and will have to move into rented, my income is too low and I am now 50 yrs old.
    I think its hugely unfair that he wants a straight 50/50 split having not contributed to the mortgage or any of the upkeep or maintenance of the house (eg when my cooker broke, my mum bought one for me after 3 months of not having one).
    Do I have any legal right to only give him a share of what the house was worth 7 years ago? Or do I just have to suck it up and give him a straight half?
    I know I need legal advice, and should probably have taken some a long time ago, but here we are….
    I’m hoping that you’ll advise me on how to begin to tackle this- not least of all so I can serve as a warning to anyone who is about to be trusting and agree ” to be fair” without any legal advice and then runs off to get divorced on line!

    • Kate Nestor says:

      Thank you for your comment. To start with I would recommend giving our Client Care Team a call on 0330 404 2912 or email at [email protected] and they will be able to help you and point you in the right direction for advice. Thanks again.

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