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Delays to divorce at the Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre

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.

If you would like any advice on divorce or other family law issues, please contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers.

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. Nick Langford says:

    No mention of “defective” divorces. Things have gone very quiet on that front.

  2. spinner says:

    1. Implement no fault divorce.
    2. Allow people to fill out the required forms online, no shuffling paper around.
    3. For people who send paper forms, scan them immediately and digitise content.
    4. Analyse the main reasons why petitions get rejected and train an AI to scan for these triggers. Give this feedback to the user in seconds and allow them to either proceed with the application or not. If the user proceeds anyway and the AI is later found to have incorrectly rejected the application, use that application to add additional training to the AI. After some time only applications that had a very high probability of success would be put through to a judge and eventually when society has caught up the AI could accept or reject the petition without the need for a judge.

  3. Andrew says:

    Make divorce administrative. You file an application (online or by post) with the Registrar of births, marriages, deaths and divorces, and three months later you file a form confirming that you still want the divorce; and you get your order. No nonsense with nisi and absolute, of course.

    The court retains jurisdiction over the financial side; but the open-ended needs approach is replaced by equal division for rich and poor – with a Mesher delay where it is necessary to protect minors.

    Bring back Calderbank or apply Part 36 to discourage litigation a l’outrance where the parties cannot agree.

    It’s not that difficult.

  4. Leanne says:

    Don’t waste time with back and forth 5 year + divorces. These are with or without consent so cut out the waiting and on the NISI supply NISI and Decree Absolute together. Its crazy, people that have been separated 5+ years, no kids and no joint assets, have to wait so long to get divorced, its obvious that they’re not going to get back together so why put extra stress in making them wait as long. Just crazy !

  5. PHIL THOMPSON says:

    Ive been in the process of Divorce for the passed six months and still waiting for decree nisi date after nearly two month. Ive tryed emailing but that takes a month to get a reply, the D10 was sent on to me three months after Bury St Edmunds said the hadn’t recive it date stamped 3 months earlier.The only thing they seem to be on the ball with is collecting the fee .I have been seperated from my wife for over fifteen years with no children.

    • Leanne says:

      I feel your pain… nearly 6 years separated, no kids and no joint assets. we have been waiting for the Decree NISI now for almost 12 weeks, still nothing. Agreed, they have taken the money but still no divorce. Its a absolute joke to make people wait for divorces after the 5yr separation, it should be straight forward and NISI & Absolute under one.

  6. jul says:

    There should be a separate streamline process for couples who have already sorted financials, especially if its a short marriage, etc

    If it turns out they didn’t want the divorce in the end – takes minutes to get married again!

  7. Alina says:

    Nearly 10 months waiting!!! God knows how long more I need to wait. Been separated for more than 6 years, no kids or anything together. Ridiculously long process! Old fashioned systems. Needs upgrade or reconsideration ASAP!

  8. Kenny - Still waiting... says:

    I’ve been waiting near to 18 months for this process to end. Sad to say it’s been nothing but incompetence that has delayed this for me.
    No children, or shared assets, no contest to the divorce, but yet still we are left waiting. From loosing paperwork, to invalidating papers by incorrectly date stamping them to sending out incorrect paperwork, I’ve suffered it all with Bury St Edmunds

  9. Vicki says:

    I posted my decree nisi application and consented forms in Nov 2018 after a 2 year separation with no kids, finance etc and the judge approved it on 8th Dec 2018, the admin team were handed it on 18th Jan 2019 but still no hearing date in the post. Just read that the hearing date is likely to be 5 weeks after Admin process it so I’m keeping my fingers crossed I do receive a date in the next 3 weeks. It’s crazy that it takes so long!! Even after the six weeks and a day when you can post off for the decree absolute, it will probably take another few months before that’s processed too at this rate! Divorce is hard enough as it is, without all the stress of the slow service and it’s not cheap either. I can’t wait until it’s all over

    • elaine says:

      i applied for my decree nisi 1st november 2018 , eventually rung them and they say i should hear something by the 13th feb , lets hope so

  10. J says:

    Took 10 months from posting paperwork to getting the Decre Nisi – have just sent off for Absolute – really hope it won’t be long, I want to put this all behind me and move on now.
    Sad it takes so long, when you’ve both decided this is what you want. Mine was a clear case, ex husband admitted adultery with no issues, paperwork always signed and sent back to courts within 24 hours too.

  11. Paulina says:

    Hi all! I don’t know what I supposed to say after reading all of your posts above -all I can say – this is crazy! I don’t wanna even know how long I am going to wait just to receive my confirmation letter from the court.
    Okay.. I’ve got question (I wanted to sand the email, but I read your post and I guess it’s pointless) We are in seperation more than 2 years, and 13th of March we send (online) our divorce form. Until then.. nothing. I should ( he applied for a divorce) receive a papers from court, that I should agree and send them back.. but what the hell? It’s been a month, and no response.. HOW MANY day you’ve been waiting for a cofirmation letter?

  12. Sally says:

    My papers were lodged with Bury over a year ago (jan 18), they left them sitting in a tray for about 4 months, and after much chasing by my solicitor, sent the papers out in June 18. The papers had a return date of October 18 on them, which was ushered too. The Decree Nisi was heard 13th Feb 19 and I am still waiting for the certificate in Mid April. The divorce wasn’t contested, as my ex (I hope) was on record with the police and social services for violence, intimidation and abuse, against myself and our little boy. The financial side is a mess that is still on going. However, with all of the evidence that we have, including court orders, amber alerts on my property with the police and the backing of CAFCASS, social services and the family court Judge who award me full sole custody of my little boy until he reaches his majority, why was this not just granted? It is sickening and we just want to move on with our lives as quickly as possible. They were quick enough to take my money. Maybe if they got paid on results rather than up front, things would be much quicker……..

  13. kind heart says:

    Fast work often is nt right and honest.
    Who win in court? only who might puy fees.Why this court didnt make all more carefully,why listen only of ,,one side,, but didnt inform other?.its easy to cheat judges in Uk?
    Now these cheaters laught from laws and justice.Thanks..Sorry ,better to live in other country then.

  14. Laura says:

    May 19, 2022 at 15.01
    Sadly, nothing has improved. I have been awaiting a simple copy of Decree Absolute and wish to remarry later this year. I have to serve my documents on the 29th June this year. So far started the process of paying for copy and requesting same early March. Calls go through to Call Centre, minimum time holding was 44 mins. Then each call you receive different information “We don’t have it” ” Oh hang on, we do”. Don’t think of asking simple question of where am I in the process. “We don’t know, we are a call centre”. So I do feel for folks actually waiting for their physical divorce to go through. I am merely waiting for a simple Admin procedure. Surely temp staff could do this.
    God bless the public sector, quite frankly I would b sacked if I were this inefficient.

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