Digital divorce: a sign of the times?

Year Published: 2019

The Facts about digital divorce:

On 4 January 2019, the Ministry of Justice confirmed that litigants-in-person (people who are not legally represented) had submitted more than 23,000* digital divorce petitions to the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) since its online portal had opened on 1 May 2018. It would appear that the recent festive period was a particularly busy time for the HMCTS as 455 online petitions were submitted between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day alone, including 13 on Christmas Day!  

Shelley Cheshworth, Partner and Joint Head of Family Law at SAS Daniels

Shelley Chesworth, Partner and Head of Family Law

Although digital divorces are on the rise, paper applications are still by far the most popular way of applying for a divorce in England and Wales. In 2017, 101,669 couples were divorced on the basis of paper applications alone according to the Office for National Statistics. Although some people may argue that these figures are indicative of a “divorce culture” in this country and a “sign of the times”, divorce rates are actually at their lowest level since 1973! 

The Law:

Whether a divorce petition is submitted online or on paper, the law, as well as the court fee payable (£550.00), remains the same. In summary, the petitioner (the spouse who issues the divorce petition) must convince the court that the marriage has irretrievably broken down on one or more of the following grounds:

  1. Adultery on the part of the respondent (the spouse who receives the petition);
  2. Unreasonable behaviour on the part of the respondent;
  3. Desertion by the respondent for a continuous period of at least 2 years;
  4. Separation for a period of at least 2 years and both spouses agree to the divorce; and
  5. Separation for a period of 5 years, even if the respondent does not agree to the divorce.

Is digital divorce the way forward?

The number of litigants-in-person in the family courts has soared over the last 5 years as a direct result of the legal aid cuts that were introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender Act 2012. On 26 December 2018, the Guardian newspaper reported that in 2017, both spouses were represented in just 20% of court hearings in the family courts; in 35% neither spouse was represented!

Although it is hoped that digital divorces will simplify court processes and reduce costs for litigants-in-person, it is important that people are aware that the online portal can only be used for the purpose of securing the decree absolute. It cannot be used to resolve disputes involving the matrimonial finances or children. Separate legal proceedings are necessary to resolve these disputes and quite often, they can be complex and time consuming. In these circumstances, a specialist family solicitor could ease the burden on litigants-in-person and help bring matters to a resolution.

For more information or to arrange a free no obligation consultation to discuss any aspect of your divorce, please do not hesitate to contact Shelley Chesworth, Head of our Family Law team on 0161 475 7622 or email [email protected].

*Statistics in this blog are taken from the BBC.

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