Digital Divorce: Why going it alone should be taken with care
Applications for divorce are increasing because of the challenges people faced during the pandemic, with many couples trying to save costs with a 'DIY' divorce online. But is that the best option? Not necessarily, says Sara Morton, a Senior Solicitor in the family team at Enoch Evans LLP, who shares her advice.
We all know that the use of online resources during the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly increased. We have become used to firing up our computers to manage our daily lives using the internet or online resources - and commencing divorce proceedings is no different.
There has been an increase in divorce rates as many couples have struggled to keep their relationships on track because of the huge strain the pandemic has placed on family life. Given that the last 12-18 months have been so difficult for so many, there is a tendency to seek out a stress-free way to get divorced so parties can move on as quickly as possible.
What is the current situation?
With the ups and downs of lockdowns and social distancing, couples and families have spent significantly more time together than they would, ordinarily. This, together with the need to home school young children, has resulted in a shift in family dynamics, along with job insecurity and money worries.
It is a sad fact that 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show there were 107,599 divorces of opposite-sex couples in 2019, an increase of 18.4 per cent on the previous year. There were 822 divorces among same-sex couples, nearly twice the number in 2018.
Although recent figures are expected to be released later this year, these will be for 2020 and it might not be until next year that we see the true impact of the pandemic.
What are the recent changes?
From 13th September 2021, all new divorce applications must be submitted using an onlinedigital HMCTS (HM Courts and Tribunals Service) portal. This has been in use for some time but it is only now that all applications must be submitted electronically.
Everyone, including legal representatives, must process divorce applications through the portal rather than the traditional paper form. The aim is to speed up applications and clear a backlog in the courts.
It is welcome news that the divorce process is being streamlined, but our main concern is that people will rush to submit an application online and may not understand the implications of what they are including in the documents filed; their position in relation to matters associated with divorce (financial or children matters, for example) or may not take the time to consider, carefully, all the options available to them.
These issues would ordinarily be addressed by a solicitor when discussing divorce proceedings.
What are the advantages of the new online divorce portal?
If one party files a Divorce Petition and the other party allows that Petition to proceed undefended the online process, from start to finish, can take between four to six months. This is a reduction in time, compared to the old paper-style divorce which could take up to nine months.
The speed with which divorce proceedings can now be concluded online can be very attractive to those who want to end their marriage as soon as possible. What they may not appreciate is that it can take longer if other issues need to be addressed, such as financial matters or if the online documents are not completed correctly and errors have to be rectified.
Taking the digital route can be more convenient for parties, as the application can be worked on at any time of the day, making it more available to those who have busy lives.
Are there any disadvantages?
If the documents online are completed incorrectly or without knowing the implications of what is being included, this could lead to difficulties further down the line and parties may find themselves in a position where the court is not able to progress their application until errors are rectified. This could not only result in the process being delayed but could also incur legal costs if parties then instruct solicitors to deal with any issues for them. Seeking independent advice of a good solicitor is a wise move, as they can help to ensure the information included in the application and documents is correct, first time.
Solicitors can help clients to understand the different grounds for divorce and discuss other options, including Judicial Separation or a Separation Agreement. They can also advise on issues which are associated with divorce, including financial and children matters.
Many people do not realise that being divorced (obtaining a Decree Absolute) does not draw a line under the financial claims that the parties will have against each other by virtue of the fact that they were once married. Further action may be required to protect both parties from such claims in the future.
There are also concerns about people who are unable to access the internet or do not feel comfortable using new technology which, some might say, is prejudicial to some members of society.
Are divorcing couples put off by the cost of using a solicitor?
The costs involved in Divorce Proceedings (including court and solicitors' fees) might be less than people expect.
Of course, parties have the choice to represent themselves and not appoint a solicitor but divorce is still a legal procedure. If the online forms are completed incorrectly, it can have legal and financial ramifications.
If you are considering divorce, we would recommend that you seek early legal advice and support. An experienced divorce solicitor will be able to guide you through your options so you can make an informed decision as to what is best for you.
We guide clients throughout the whole process, giving them peace of mind and leaving them to focus on building their new life in what is already a very difficult and emotional time for many families.
For further information, contact Enoch Evans LLP on 01922 720333 (Walsall office) or 0121 7252293 (Sutton Coldfield office).