On 6 August 2018, The International Family Law Group LLP (iFLG) became the first firm of solicitors to issue an English divorce petition online. The petition was issued, returned and ready for service in less than 24 hours, a very impressive turnaround. The completion of this online petition was made possible thanks to the online divorce pilot for solicitors launched on Tuesday 31 July 2018, in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (‘HMCTS’) and the East Midlands Regional Divorce Centre. David Hodson and Stuart Clark of iFLG previously provided details of the launch.
These are our initial comments on the completion of the online divorce petition together with our guidance to using the system for the profession for when the portal is further rolled out. We hope it will be later this year and we will of course update on this exciting development.
We are primarily impressed with how straightforward the online divorce petition is to complete. Most questions can be answered by clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and there are free text boxes for addresses, particulars etc.
Helpfully, a tick box is provided to allow the user to request for all issued documents to be returned to the petitioner’s solicitors for service. We frequently serve ourselves rather than having the Court serve, so we can control the timing and circumstances of service which often needs careful planning. The recognition of this as an option is a useful inclusion in the online petition.
If the marriage took place in the UK, there is now no need to provide any details of the marriage venue when completing the application. The Court will enter the full details of the spouses and the venue in the issued petition. The requirement to provide the exact names of the parties as they appear on the marriage certificate, and details of the venue for the marriage if outside of the UK, remains.
Errors on the precise wording of the marriage certificate in the petition had been a primary cause of many petitions being rejected. This online model should eradicate the problem in the future.
Petitioners are no longer required to provide original marriage certificates. Instead, a copy can be uploaded as a PDF. This will likely speed up the process of submitting petitions. In our international work we are often faced with a delay if our client resides in another jurisdiction and has to send the original document to us. We will no longer have to wait until we have received the marriage certificate in the post before lodging the petition.
As mentioned by David Hodson and Stuart Clark in their previous article, we have been anxious to ensure that the jurisdiction clauses in the online petition reflect the current law and practice. There has been some debate between us and HMCTS regarding the wording used and, for the moment, we consider the beta version requires some amendment. We understand this is currently being processed by the HMCTS team and we hope this will be improved prior to general release.
A most welcome change with the submitting of the online divorce petition is the streamlining of the petition according to which fact is relied on. Once the fact has been selected, the following questions appear only in relation to that fact. This shortens the petition significantly. For instance, if a client relies on the fact of 2 years with consent, the questions relating to unreasonable behaviour/adultery simply don’t appear. At the moment, the online petition cannot be used if relying on more than one fact. This may be changed later although this rarely arises.
In a further attempt to streamline the process, the questions previously found in the statement in support of the petition about periods living together since any fact relied on are now found in the online petition. This shortens the Decree Nisi application form.
Another addition to the online petition is the incorporation of the statement of reconciliation into the petition itself. The usual questions asked are now placed right before the statement of truth.
This is also welcome as it saves on the documents to be lodged on filing a petition.
The prayers for the online petition are just as concise and straightforward to complete as those in the most recent hard version of the petition introduced in August 2017. Gone, fortunately, are the days where practitioners and laypeople alike were required to complete an extensive prayers section outlining all possible financial claims available to the petitioner. This was frequently met by disapproval and confusion by respondents, including in circumstances where no actual claims were expected and they were only included for subsequent dismissal purposes. It is good to see that the online petition reflects the progress made in this area, for which lawyers have been calling for a couple of decades.
As below, practitioners are simply asked to tick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with regard to whether a financial order is sought.
It is natural to be wary of making mistakes with the new online format. Helpfully the portal provides a number of opportunities to double-check all content. A comprehensive summary of the petition (which can be printed out for review) is presented before the statement of truth is agreed to and prior to payment being made. This helps to ensure that the user is fully comfortable with the content of the petition before finally submitting it for issue.
Practitioners are given a range of payment options, including sending a cheque to Court after submission of the petition online or by entering their Payment by Account (‘PBA’) number, should the firm have one. The option to pay by PBA, which was not specifically provided for even in the August 2017 petition changes, is great news for solicitors wishing for payment to be made as soon as possible and as efficiently as possible. This is welcome in the move toward a fully online system. There is currently a short delay in the processing of payments and it is hoped that by the time the system goes live to the profession this will be removed and the payment will be debited automatically once the PBA number has been entered and the petition submitted.
We are delighted with the speed at which petitions can be issued via the portal. Apart from one technical error which has now been remedied, our first petition was issued (and all accompanying documents returned to our firm by email) less than 24 hours after submission. We have since issued a number of other petitions and they have also been returned within 24 hours, usually by midday the next working day.
We have been impressed by our first experiences of using the online divorce portal, from the process of submitting the form online to receiving the documents back so swiftly. The possibility of issuing online marks a significant step forward for the family law profession and iFLG is looking forward to seeing the benefits of utilising the portal over the next few months.
We look forward to the whole divorce process going online now the hardest part of the petition is well underway. We have been pleased to work with HMCTS on both the financial provision (Forms A and E) and the children proceedings online projects and we look forward to the roll out of these for the profession. As a practice, we are convinced that digital innovations in family justice in the UK and worldwide are the only way forward. It is what our clients, in England and the world, want and it is how as younger members of the profession we want to work.