This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 4 May 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission.
The capacity in which family solicitors are needed will undoubtedly change with the rise of online divorce, writes Pippa Allsop.
Last year, Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, announced an online divorce pilot scheme which was subsequently launched in January 2017 at the East Midlands Divorce Centre. In summary, the new digitised service has moved away from the current petition format, and instead uses an online questionnaire to gather the required information from the user in a more straightforward and less legalistic way.
When initially discussing the pilot scheme, Munby P rightly surmised: ‘At what stages in the process is human activity required? There are only two: first, in deciding whether the pleaded facts, if true, amount, for example, to unreasonable behaviour; second, in pronouncing the decree in open court. Everything else can, in principle, be done electronically, at great savings of both time and cost.’
The fact that the process of obtaining a divorce itself is essentially a paperwork exercise is not something that is widely appreciated. Although difficulties can arise in connection to the divorce procedure, it is far more common for difficulties to stem from the two main ‘issues’ which need to be addressed as a consequence of the divorce, being the division of the matrimonial finances and sorting out arrangements for any children of the family.
According to the recent feedback from HMCTS’s divorce service manager, Adam Lennon, the trial has ‘proven extremely successful’. Lennon referenced positive testimonies from practitioners and service users alike to support this analysis of the pilot’s progress thus far.
In all honesty, I have mixed feelings about these plans. As I have opined previously, my view is that some recent government decisions, for example raising the fee for issuing divorce proceedings to £550 or more generally the widespread court closures, have seriously undermined the doctrine of ‘access to justice’. In this vein, clearly any proposed change which will make things easier for divorcing couples to navigate the process themselves should be welcomed. If the pilot feedback is correct, the new service should also serve to speed up the divorce process, which is something that has not (in many instances, as yet) seemingly been achieved as envisaged through the ‘streamlining’ introduction of divorce centres. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly in my view, there are the potential legislative repercussions which might flow from the pilot scheme. I would hope that the introduction of the online system would add further momentum to the current call for divorce law reform and particularly the introduction of no-fault divorce. However, and from an entirely selfish point of view, I feel a little concerned. I should imagine this is how many supermarket employees felt recently when the new Japanese system which removes the need for ‘manned’ checkouts, ‘Reji Robo’, was launched.
Lennon has pointed out the fact that ‘currently 40 per cent of all applications are rejected due to forms being completed incorrectly’, a problem which is addressed by the new online service having ‘built in validation to minimise the possible reason for rejections’. At present the role of the built in validation is my own.
This is a fear that Munby P sought to assuage when he announced the plan last March, stating that ‘whatever else changes there will, I am confident, always be a need for family lawyers.’ I share this belief, but am also sure that the capacity in which we are needed will undoubtedly and significantly change.
Notwithstanding this, and no matter the potential repercussions for family law practitioners, it would seem that on any analysis the benefits of this particular proposal to the end-user are clear and it must therefore be a positive change which should be encouraged. As Sir James rightly said at the outset, ‘we face an exciting, if challenging, future’.
For more information please contact Pippa Allsop, Associate in the Family Law team.