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Co-op’s online divorce: A road test

Date:19 JAN 2018
Third slide
Collaborative lawyer & Family law arbitrator

I am a fan of the Co-op. My granny was a 'divi' (dividend) number holder. However, a headline earlier this month took me aback: 'Co-op speeds up the quickie divorce'announced the FT.

Of course, many of us try to educate certain sections of the media to the fact that there is no such thing as a 'quickie divorce'. But for the FT to herald, the 'quickie divorce could become even quicker'? How was any provider of legal services going to speed up the divorce process as it currently stands?

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I sent a tweet asking @coopuklegal more about their newly announced product. I received no reply so I thought that I might find out any magic secret from Co-op’s website. It announces:

'Online Divorce Service Launched by Co-op Legal Services

Co-op Legal Services has launched a new online divorce service which allows people to start the divorce process online from home, at work, or on the go; at a time that suits them.'

I began to think that, somehow, the Co-op had overtaken HMCTS in its £1bn pound modernisation project across the entire court system. I eagerly clicked 'start your divorce online now'.

I was over the moon with excitement that the Co-op could offer 'Fixed Fee Divorce for Uncontested Divorce Costs £600', even though the issue fee alone itself is £550. I checked the website. Towards the bottom of the page 'Start your Divorce online now', I found the following: 'Court fee of £550. This is an additional cost to the Co-op fee.'

So I started my divorce online. I had to answer a few basic questions about my name, postal and email addresses, my date of birth and the name of my fictitious spouse, the previously unheard of 'Jane'. I was asked about my marriage certificate. Beyond that, I was asked which fact I was relying upon and entered 'unreasonable' behaviour but no particulars were requested. I was then told that the Co-op would be in touch to book my call with a 'Divorce specialist' and I could choose a slot from Monday to Friday between 09.00 and 17.00. Hang on. Wasn’t this the service that 'allows people to start the divorce process online from home, at work, or on the go; at a time that suits them'? This seems to only refer to when you might want to fill in a few bits of basic data.

So how does this compare with the HMCTS developing online divorce process? Last March, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for a workshop explaining more about the online divorce project from the Court Service, which I wrote about.

I learnt at this workshop that ‘Apply for a Divorce’ is ultimately intended to be a simple online service for the 98% of divorces that are uncontested and will 'vastly improve the experience'. However, later phases of the project will extend it across England and Wales. It will also cover applications for financial remedies, not just by consent but also those which are contested. Ultimately, the parties and their solicitors will be able to progress and monitor their matter online.

At this 'Apply for a Divorce Service Workshop', I was taken through an advanced version of the research demo divorce prototype hosted on the Gov.UK website. A series of questions were posed, resulting in a page where you can check your answers.

One of the key ways that the HMCTS vehicle differs from the Co-op product is that it actually produces a petition at the end.

What of the claim in Co-op’s own news release  that:
'The service could potentially cut the amount of time it takes to complete a non-contested divorce by a third, from a potential 6-9 months to 4-6 months.' 
How so when its digital aspects are limited to what I have set above? After all, the Co-op itself says that it will then simply, 'send the document through to the customer to be signed and returned. When the signed divorce papers have been received, they will be sent on to the court'. One comment on Twitter pointed out that the Co-op cannot speed up the time it takes to process the divorce as this is in the hands of the courts.
I am told that my awaited Co-op call 'could be booked during a lunch hour, or just before the kids get home from school. This means that the customer does not have to take time off work or travel to visit a solicitor’s office to start the divorce process'. It’s funny that I have never bothered to ask a client when might be the best time for me to contact them, even out of hours, and what might be the best method...

I am rather looking forward to my call from a Co-op 'Divorce specialist'. Meanwhile, HMCTS will shortly be running another stakeholder event about its online divorce project.