My twenty-five-odd years of practising as a family lawyer taught me that few people take the decision to commence divorce proceedings lightly. They will only do it after full consideration, when they are quite certain that their marriage cannot be saved.
However, a news item I came across last week has given me pause for thought. I still stand by what I have said before, but since I ceased practising ten years ago a much easier method of initiating divorce proceedings has appeared. I am talking, of course, of online divorce. The news item suggests that perhaps a greater number of divorce petitions that are issued online are not pursued through to decree absolute, than petitions issued on paper. The speculation is that online petitions may be issued prematurely, possibly even as a sort of ‘cry for help’. It is suggested that more research be carried out to see if there is any truth in this.
Now, I don’t want to steal anyone’s ideas, but this is an important issue that needs to be discussed. After all, one of the biggest concerns about the introduction of no-fault divorce is that it may make divorce too easy, thereby devaluing marriage. It would be somewhat ironic if a procedural change to the existing law has already had the same effect.
Obviously, it is far easier to go online and issue a divorce petition than it is to book an appointment and see a solicitor, or even than obtaining the necessary paper forms, completing them and posting them to the court. And we all know that doing things online is so quick that often things are said and done on the spur of the moment, without proper reflection. How many of us, for example, have later regretted something we said on social media?
One can easily imagine the scenario whereby a married couple have a blazing row, and one of them storms out of the matrimonial home. The other party, fuming at what has occurred, grabs their laptop and heads straight to the Government’s apply for a divorce service. Within minutes, they have issued divorce proceedings.
OK, that may be a rather extreme example. Perhaps a more common scenario may happen a little further along the road, when the marriage has been in difficulties for a while. It has not yet reached the point of irretrievable breakdown, but one of the parties has been considering that possibility. Maybe on a ‘bad day’ they may become frustrated at the lack of progress towards a reconciliation, and decide to call it a day and issue divorce proceedings (maybe subconsciously all they really want to do is issue a cry for help). Embarrassed that others may think that the marriage has not actually broken down, and worried that they may try to make them change their mind, they decide against going to see a solicitor. It is so much easier to do it yourself, in the privacy of your own home.
But divorce is not of course instantaneous. It is a process that usually takes months. And during that time things can change. The petitioner can reflect upon what they have done, and decide not to complete the process.
You might be thinking: well, OK, but if they reconcile, then no harm done? I’m not sure it is as simple as that.
Firstly, of course, some do not reconcile, and go through with the divorce, possibly simply because to do otherwise would involve a huge loss of face. But even where there is a reconciliation, the act by one party of issuing divorce proceedings will surely be a damaging scar on the future relationship. One can imagine some couples never really getting over it, and the marriage ultimately breaking down anyway.
Whether these things happen, and if so whether they occur on a frequent basis, I don’t know. However, perhaps the time has come to remind people that divorce is not a trivial step, and that online divorce should not be used as a ‘cry for help’. If your marriage is in difficulties but you are not sure it is over then there are, of course, places where you can seek help, such as the relationship charity Relate. I don’t see any sort of ‘are you sure you want to go ahead with this?’ warning on the Government’s website. Perhaps there should be one, along with a list of places where such help can be found.