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Online reform: digital divorce workshop

Date:7 MAR 2017
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Collaborative lawyer & Family law arbitrator

At the beginning of this month (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 (HMCTS). I joined representatives from the Law Society, Resolution and the Bar.

We were introduced to the project by a preview of a video about the proposed online reform, part of a £1bn investment which will supposedly deliver savings of £250m in annual running costs. The video covering various area of law, mentions that, in the future we may see video hearings. The government is exploring extending court opening hours. More case officers for judges are to be employed. However the video made no mention of how the shortage of judges might be tackled.

Head of Family Modernisation and Improvement, Adam Lennon, led the session. It seems that family modernisation is leading the way, being one of a small number of similar digital projects involving, for example, probate and tribunals. The government’s ‘agile methodology’ approach to projects means that new processes are built bit by bit, starting with the petition in this case.

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‘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’.

No changes are to be made to primary legislation underlying these processes. A new Practice Direction, 36D, appeared on 25 January, enabling the pilot scheme in the East Midlands Divorce Centre. This will soon be followed by others. The next, for example, will cover online submission.

The divorce project is taking a bit of time, we were told, because it is modular and is blazing the way for other processes. HMCTS continues to be rather careful about what it says about timescales.

The pilot scheme began on 25 January at the East Midlands Divorce Centre. It has simply focussed on litigants in person there, using the online system at the court with full support and supervision from staff working on the project. It is stressed that what is being used there is not the final product. PD36D makes it clear what is involved currently. Once completed online, the pilot petitioner, or applicant, needs ‘to print off the generated application’ for issue.  Apparently, all those who have used the pilot so far liked it.

The next step of the pilot will remain by invitation only to litigants in person but will be run in their own homes without supervision. Public release will then follow and this stage will be ‘usable’ by solicitors, although presumably still within the pilot.

Litigants in person in the East Midlands project, supervised by specialist staff at the divorce centre are taking 10 to 20 minutes to complete the petition we were told.

Once produced, the petition looks rather different from what we are used to. There are no separate notes as these are incorporated. As such it currently runs to 16 pages.

The workshop enabled a very useful open exchange between MoJ staff and practitioners. Bringing divorce online will take time. Quite how long is not clear. In the meantime, we will see new PDs introduced which will herald developments within the pilot. 

A more in-depth piece by Tony Roe will appear in the April issue of Family Law.

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