Monitoring the progress of paper-based divorce: an update from Bury St Edmunds
21 June 2018
Jordans Family Law (Lexis Nexis)

In his Sir Henry Brooke annual lecture, titled 'The Age of Reform', given on 7 June 2018, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon said:

'Significant reforms of the civil and family courts have been tested via pilot schemes, such as the online civil money claims pilot – commonly, if inaccurately, referred to as the online court – the probate pilot scheme and the online divorce pilot scheme. These pilots are working well.

'First, I mention the online divorce pilot. The pilot has now moved to general availability since 1 May. Over 600 applications were received in the first week and a total of 2,600 as of this Monday. In the paper-based world, an uncontested divorce requires a petitioner to fill out a form and file it with the court.'

Just how is the paper-based world of divorce doing? I decided to approach my local divorce centre and have been monitoring its progress.

The divorce centre for London & the South East at Bury St Edmunds (BSE) had a processing timescale on 19 June, as follows: 'Our current work position is

We are currently processing:

• Petitions received on 4 June 2018 • Acknowledgement of Service received on 14 May 2018

• applications for Decree Nisi received on 14 May 2018

• Correspondence and emails received on 23 May 2018

• Form A's received on 29 May 2018

• Consent order applications received on 29 May 2018

• Decree Absolutes received on the day

The Judiciary are currently processing:

• Applications for Decree Nisi received on 23 April 2018. Once seen by Judiciary which will take approximately 29 Days, the administration staff will then process the decision within 28 days. If the application is granted a pronouncement date will be set for a further 4-5 weeks on from processing.

• Applications received on 30 May 2018, the answer to these will be processed by the admin team in approximately 59 working days from that day.'

I spoke to a senior official at the Courts Service about these issues. It seems that certain strategies are already in place aimed at reducing the backlog. Some inroads appear to have been made this month in the issue of petitions and in the judiciary processing applications. However, a backlog with administrative staff of 59 working days is alarming. I understand that there will be an announcement shortly.

In the meantime, I took the matter up directly with Susan Acland-Hood, CEO of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), with responsibility for delivery of its major modernisation programme. Her response was:

'We know this is not good enough – we have been short of staff in Bury, but should have picked up the issues earlier – we are now using extra staff (and help from other divorce centres) to sort this, and you should start to see improvement soon.'

So I checked again today, 21 June, with BSE’s ‘on demand’ information bulletin which was launched in November 2015. The daily bulletin, which came about from a suggestion made at a Law Society event, is intended to show the work position at the divorce centre and provides general information to assist practitioners. The intention was to enable solicitors and others to assess when work sent to the divorce centre will be processed, and reduce the need to telephone or write for progress updates. The result when I looked? It had not been updated for two days.

The Lord Chief Justice is right to be positive about online divorce but there are clouds on the horizon this summer. The National Audit Office, which visited Nottingham divorce centre amongst other courts, said in its report 'Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals', that HMCTS faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the justice system and achieve required savings. It is behind where it expected to be at this stage of its ambitious reform programme.

It added that HMCTS estimates there will be a funding shortfall of £61m in future years, assuming that HM Treasury agrees that all previous years’ underspends can be carried forward. Without this agreement, the funding gap could be £177m.

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