Launched last year, the pilot, originally initially allowed people seeking a divorce to use an online system which offers prompts and guidance to assist them in completing their application. They would then print off the form and send it to the court. In mid-January HMCTS extended the service so that the application is now fully digital – submitting the form, sending the relevant documents, and payment. In the first week HMCTS received 130 online applications.
Originally introduced only at Nottingham’s East Midlands regional divorce centre, HMCTS says that the online system has drastically cut the number of applications being returned because of errors – showing a 90% improvement from paper forms. It says that it has already gained positive feedback from people 'welcoming the simplified, streamlined and easy to understand system which delivers their application instantly – without the worry of it being lost in the post'.
The next stages will include making the system available for use by legal representatives.
Susan Acland-Hood, CEO of HMCTS, said:
'We are investing over £1bn to reform and modernise the justice system.
These measures are drastically cutting the number of applications returned because of errors – streamlining the process and ensuring we are best supporting people going through a difficult and often painful time.'
Tony Roe, principal of Berkshire-based Tony Roe Solicitors, says:
'It is now clear what the purpose is of the new Practice Direction 36E, which appeared earlier this month. HMCTS seem very pleased at how well this project is progressing. I shall be interested to know how and when the system will be available for use by solicitors and our clients.'
Resolution Chair Nigel Shepherd said:
'Resolution welcomes the move to a fully digital system, bringing divorce in line with many other Government services which have been digitised for some time now.
Although the consequences of divorce, such as making arrangements for how parents will care for their children and sorting out the finances, can be complicated, the divorce itself is usually a relatively simple administrative process. Moving it online is a step in the right direction, provided it functions well for the couples, their legal representatives where they have them and anyone else involved. We hope to see positive results from this pilot.
However, the costs savings that will undoubtedly result from an online process highlights further the issue of the high court fee for filing for divorce, which rose 35% to £550 in 2016. That is a very significant figure not justified by the actual cost to Government.
At the same time, the Government should act to introduce no fault divorce as a priority. Current law pushes couples into citing fault, fostering feelings of injustice and recrimination, increasing stress and anxiety and eroding parents' ability to focus constructively on future co-parenting. Apart from the obvious benefits to families and society of reducing acrimony on divorce, a no fault process will be far simpler to administer in the new digital age.'
Jane Robey, CEO of National Family Mediation, said:
'Facing a divorce is one of the biggest crisis points in anyone’s life, so it’s particularly important that the process is as simple and straightforward as possible.
'The last thing people need at this time is to have to get to grips with a new set of legal jargon – words like "affidavit", "plaintiff" and "‘respondent" – simply in order to move on with their lives.
The excellent digital work being developed by HMCTS promises to help demystify the process and simplify things, bringing divorce into the 21st century, using a language we can all understand.
Bringing divorce processes online makes them much more accessible which by definition can provide better access to justice and swifter resolution to seemingly-complicated procedures.'