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Resolution meets with HMCTS regarding new centres for divorce

Date:9 FEB 2015
Resolution and HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) have released information about current and future moves to central divorce centres.

Divorce centres will usually be the only points of entry across the single family court for the issuing of divorce petitions and financial remedy applications.

There are no changes in points of entry for public and private law children applications.

HMCTS rationale for centralisation

The single family court is a single jurisdiction without the previous geographical boundaries of county courts. Under the Crime and Courts Act 2013 legal advisers now have the power to consider decree nisi applications and directions for trial across the family court.

Legal advisers will deal with the majority of routine decree nisi applications with the intention to free up judicial time for other work, and reduce processing delays and inconsistency.

The points of entry for divorce petitions and financial remedy applications will be reduced. A network of divorce centres is being established to handle the vast majority of applications. Both DJs and legal advisers will be on site at all of the centres.

If a hearing is required (either in relation to the divorce or the financial remedy application) the application will leave the divorce centre and the hearing will take place at the most suitable location for the parties.

The centres

Decisions on number, location and timetable have been made within HMCTS at regional level, on the basis of local estate and resource considerations. Some divorce centres are already fully or partly live. The transfer of work is being phased to the centres, and the current plan is that each of the divorce centres will be fully operational as follows:
Region Centralised to Fully live with effect from
North East Durham, Bradford (and Harrogate)*, Doncaster November 2014
Wales Neath & Port Talbot, Newport (Gwent), Wrexham January 2015
North West Liverpool February 2015
Midlands Nottingham, Stoke-on-Trent February 2015
South West Southampton April 2015
London and South East** Bury St Edmunds October 2015

* work from Harrogate is planned to transfer to Bradford in due course

** the plans for London and the South East remain in development

Please note, the actual date from which to start sending petitions to the new centre may vary between courts, so please look out for communications in and from your local courts.

It is intended that the Central Family Court will remain a point of entry for financial remedy cases, and emergency or urgent divorce petitions.

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What work is to be sent to the centres?

All divorce petitions should be sent by post to one of the centres unless there is an urgent reason to seek to issue at the counter. The application process will remain unchanged but all uncontested petitions will be prepared and made ready for initial decree nisi consideration by a legal adviser based at the centre. The legal advisers will be supervised by DJs on site, who will handle any contested applications, annulments and judicial separation applications. Legal advisers will not handle any financial remedy cases.

The centres are points of entry. Hearings can be elsewhere. Where a financial remedy application will need a hearing you should indicate where your client requests the hearing take place, for example, at the same court as any Children Act application, more locally to where the parties reside, or at a more central location when the parties live in completely different areas.

The Family Procedure Rules Committee will be considering changes to the D8 petition form and Form A financial remedy form so that your clients can indicate where they would prefer hearings to take place, and why, if one is required. If there is any dispute over the venue for hearings, this will be dealt with in the usual way by a DJ at the divorce centre.

It is expected that the majority of financial remedy applications (i.e. those that do not require a hearing – typically applications by consent) will be handled by DJs on site at the divorce centres, though arrangements have been put in place to share work with other hearing centres where necessary.

Each of the divorce centres will operate on the basis of a designated catchment area, but petitions from outside of the catchment area will be accepted at other centres if a reason is given. This will be kept under review until any workload changes have been assessed and understood.

You can attend in person at one of the centres during counter opening hours to issue a petition with or without a financial remedy application but it will go into the ordinary queue unless urgent.

In time, civil partnership dissolution applications will also be required to be sent to the same centres, but the timetable for this is not yet confirmed save in relation to the North East where civil partnership dissolution applications should be sent to Durham, Bradford or Doncaster.

Urgent applications

There are no legal or other changes (no changes have been made or are currently proposed to primary or secondary legislation) which affect the ability to issue urgent petitions at local hearing venues, for example, where there is a jurisdiction race, or other urgent applications.

All family court venues that have DJs on site, including the Central Family Court, will continue to accept urgent petitions and applications, and will retain the facility to issue. Resolution has asked to have input as to how this will work in practice.

Resolution chair Jo Edwards explained:

"Resolution recently met with HMCTS to discuss the new divorce centres as our members were telling us that, where centres were already in operation, information available locally had been patchy. Furthermore, members in areas where the centres are yet to open were anxious to understand more about what was coming.

"It was a positive meeting and as a result we were able to get information out to our members about what the changes mean and how they will affect them. It's important now that HMCTS continue to listen to our members, so they understand how the new centres are operating on the ground, and how they can mitigate any negative impact.

"We understand the logic behind the changes. But our concern is this latest development takes place against a background of a family justice system that has seen relentless change over the past couple of years.

"It is vital that the operation of the new divorce centres does not further restrict access to justice, which has already suffered so many devastating blows in recent years."

For any feedback and if there are issues around communication of the changes in your area, or if you have specific concerns about how these changes will impact or are working on the ground Rachel Rogers, Head of Policy at Resolution can be contacted.