Launched back in 2015 to take proceedings out of courts, the Divorce Centres promised a staggering 48 hours turnaround time. In reality, due to staff shortages, it takes six months for cases to reach the decree nisi stage at Bury St Edmunds, the largest centre in the UK.
John Bolch shares his thoughts…
I don’t like to say “I told you so” but… I told you so.
In the last week or so stories have emerged from various sources relating to delays at the largest divorce centre in the country, at Bury St Edmunds.
Unfortunately, these stories come as no surprise to me or, it seems, to many family lawyers, who are now having to struggle to explain to their clients why their divorce is taking so long.
Just to recap for the benefit of those who don’t know, divorce centres were established in 2015, with the aim of streamlining the process of divorce. Instead of having divorces dealt with by some 110 divorce county courts spread around England and Wales, all divorces would be handled by just eleven divorce centres. The primary aim, of course, was to save costs, by using the age-old method of economies of scale: divorces would be churned out on a production line.
Now, despite that choice of words, I don’t have any basic problem with the concept of divorce centres. The worry that I and many others had at the outset was that if a large part of the savings were to come from having far fewer court staff dealing with divorces, there would always be a high likelihood that the centres, or at least some of them, would not be provided with the staff numbers necessary to handle their high workloads.
And so it has turned out to be the case, at least in respect of the centre at Bury St Edmunds.
Let us just take a moment to consider the workload of the Bury St Edmunds divorce centre. It was established to cover the whole of London and the South-East of England, an area including some 17 million people, which used to be covered by about 45 divorce county courts, including the Principal Registry in London, which alone had a very large caseload.
My understanding from HM Courts and Tribunals Service was that Bury St Edmunds would handle about 40% of all divorces in England and Wales, although I note that when she gave evidence to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee recently Jo Edwards, representing Resolution, put the figure at 45%. Even if we accept the 40% figure, that still means that this one centre would handle a staggering 40,000 petitions a year.
Obviously, in some years that figure may be considerably higher than that – last year some 109,000 divorce petitions were issued in England and Wales, and that was the lowest figure for some years. Back in 2006, for example, the figure was 148,000, which would leave Bury St Edmunds having to cope with some 60,000 petitions a year.
So what has been happening at Bury St Edmunds? Jo Edwards told the Public Accounts Committee that there has been a doubling in the amount of time it takes the centre to process petitions, going from about three to six months for cases to reach the decree nisi stage.
To go into more detail, on the 15th of June the centre said that it was processing petitions received on the 30th of May (when the centres were first established the government claimed that divorce petitions could be handled in as little as 48 hours), and that they were processing applications for decree nisi received on the 4th of May.
It gets worse. The judiciary was processing applications for decree nisi received on the 19th of April. The Judiciary would then take approximately 29 days to deal with them, after which the administration staff would then process the decision within 28 days. If the application was granted a pronouncement date would be set for a further 4-5 weeks on from processing.
The reason for all these delays? You’ve guessed it: staff shortages.
Susan Acland-Hood, CEO of HM Courts & Tribunals Service, responded to the figures on Twitter with this:
“We know this is not good enough – we have been short of staff in Bury, but should have picked up the issues earlier – we are now using the extra staff (and help from other divorce centres) to sort this, and you should start to see improvement soon.”
OK, that’s good to know, and let us hope there is a significant improvement, although it’s worrying that HMCTS didn’t pick up the issue earlier, particularly as it was just what so many of us were concerned about at the outset.
Meanwhile, people across London and the South East are having to wait twice as long for their divorces. That may not seem too much of an issue, but as Jo Edwards pointed out to the PAC, those people may not be able to access financial remedies for all of that time, causing real hardship.