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Online Divorce Could Simplify Proceedings and Reduce Stress

A pilot project that allows digital issuance of divorce proceedings could pave the way towards “no-fault” grounds for ending marriage.

England’s most senior family judge, Sir James Munby, has backed a pilot plan in which divorce proceedings will be allowed to be issued digitally for the first time. The move could reduce the bureaucracy and stress faced by thousands of divorcing couples every year.

However, the day of paperless divorce becoming a reality for everyone could still be some distance away, as reformers struggle through the bureaucracy of reducing bureaucracy.

Fewer divorces

More than 110,000 divorce proceedings commenced in 2015, marking a continuing drop in divorces since statistics peaked at 165,000 in 1993.

This should, however, be considered in combination with the stepwise reduction in marriages over the past 40 years. As one family lawyer remarked in an article for the Daily Telegraph, “Many businessmen and women are simply choosing not to marry and, therefore, that is affecting the numbers of divorces too.”

Simplified proceedings

Despite the year on year fall in the UK divorce rate, a simplified online process would still have a major impact on almost a quarter of a million people every year – people who are already going through one of the most stressful events imaginable.

The proposed reforms were published last September by the Ministry of Justice, in its consultation paper Transforming Our Justice System.

The paper stated the aim of removing some of the bureaucracy from what are often stressful and lengthy proceedings. It also sought to simplify the administrative processes by using digital forms. To this end, it said that work is already underway to allow divorce applications to be made and managed online.

A long road ahead

Despite the positive voice of reform, it would be unrealistic to expect people to be able to complete their divorce proceedings at the click of a mouse any time soon.

Consultation has been carried out with “end users” (ie those who have been through the process of divorce) to gain insights on any shortcomings with the current system, and how these can best be overcome.

The next step will be a small pilot project. Sources state that the pilot is due to commence shortly, but even this will require some changes to the rules for divorce, by way of a Practice Direction. To date, no such Direction has been published.

While there is clear enthusiasm to develop and roll out an online system, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has not committed to a timeline for when this will be available to the general public.

Of course, one major hurdle for an online system is that many divorces lead to disputes and disagreements over the splitting of assets and childcare that cannot be resolved without the help of the best divorce lawyers.

Digital revolution

The proposed pilot is one of several digital projects underway, proving that the digital revolution is even having its effect in the most established and traditional legal areas. Other projects involve such areas as probate and tribunals, but will not necessarily have the usual speed associated with the digital age.

Each project will proceed at its own rate and the process of modernisation is likely to be of a slow and piecemeal nature. At best, commentators predict it might be possible to complete their initial divorce petition online by late 2017.