Digital Divorce Matters

The new ‘fully digitised’ divorce application was launched on the 1st of May and enables the whole divorce process to be completed online, including payment and uploading supporting evidence. According to GOV.UK, “More than 1,000 petitions were issued through the new system during the testing phase – with 91% of people saying they were satisfied with the service.”

Apparently, “This simpler and less technical online service has already contributed to a 95% drop in the number of applications being returned because of mistakes, when compared with paper forms.”

Whilst this is a positive step forward, it is worthy of note that most users of the system will still need to understand the legal process of divorce because it is, as yet, not sufficiently streamlined to make for a knowingly straightforward, conflict free process for those who are unfamiliar and there are many pitfalls which can encourage conflict at precisely the moment when it is important for both parties to be trying to seek to work together to make separate arrangements for the future.

So, for example, in divorce petitions alleging adultery, there is the issue of whether or not to name the ‘co-respondent’, that is, the person with whom you allege your spouse has committed adultery. Naming the co-respondent is optional – the requirement to name them, if their identity was known, was abolished many years ago. However, the new divorce forms almost seem to encourage petitioners to name and shame adulterers. The motivation to name the co-respondent by the wounded party is easy to understand. Therefore, without simple advice on this matter, many petitioners are likely to make the mistake of naming the co-respondent when there is no need to, thereby causing themselves a lot of additional stress in the process.

Similarly, in petitions alleging unreasonable behaviour, it is not always immediately obvious to a petitioner just what level of allegation is necessary for a judge to recognise that the marriage has ended. As in the recent, and ongoing, Owens v Owens case, we can see that it is easy to cite allegations that do not meet the bar for the granting of a decree nisi. Equally, it is very easy to sledgehammer a set of such allegations which causes significant distress, just as financial negotiations are getting underway. Knowledge of the system, here, is key.

Then there is the issue of the costs of the divorce. Even if you do it yourself you will have to pay the court fee on the divorce petition (unless you are entitled to an exemption), and this currently stands at £550. If you are seeking to keep costs to a minimum, you might decide to tick the box, asking the court to order your spouse to pay your costs, and even the co-respondent, if you have named them. However, you may actually end up wishing you hadn’t claimed costs as this can make things more complicated, by potentially encouraging the respondent not to cooperate, or even to defend the divorce.

Many people who do their own divorce without legal advice may not appreciate that there is a connection between the divorce and the financial settlement, and that it may not be in their interests to finalise the divorce by applying for the decree absolute until the financial settlement has been sorted out. Ending the marriage has consequences, for example in relation to the rights of a spouse who does not own the matrimonial home, and in relation to pensions. It is therefore absolutely essential that anyone applying for a decree absolute knows and understands the consequences for them of ending the marriage, before they apply.

Whilst the government is moving family law forward, progress is still moving at a snail’s pace and there is still no guarantee that the online process will make it any more possible to take your own undefended application through the court process yourself, without advice and without pitfalls.

If you would like help to fill out your divorce application, you can contact Belinda on 01223 355912.