Part of the new structure of the Single Family Court system, is the introduction of divorce centres. These centres are going to be the only places at which most divorce petitions and financial remedy applications can be issued in the future. Urgent petitions or applications can still be issued locally. The new centres will each have a ‘catchment area’, but at least at first the centres will accept petitions and applications from ‘out of catchment’, provided a reason is given. The actual date on which petitions must be sent to your local divorce centre, rather than your usual court, may vary, so you need to check with your local courts – applications for dissolution of civil partnership are being moved to the centres on a different timetable, so you may need to check that too.
If a hearing is required, it will take place at the family court whose location is best for the parties – the Family Procedure Rules Committee is considering changes to the D8 petition form and Form A financial remedy form so that petitioners/applicants can say where they would prefer any hearing to take place, and why. Any dispute as to the venue for hearings will be dealt with in the normal way, by a district judge at the divorce centre. Children applications will continue to be dealt with by a wider range of courts.
The Ministry of Justice has announced that the agreed divorce centres for England and Wales are:
Midlands – Nottingham and Stoke
North East – Doncaster, Durham and Bradford. These centres are operational, Harrogate has been operating as a fourth centre but this work is due to be transferred to Bradford soon.
North West – Liverpool (phased implementation underway)
Wales – Neath & Port Talbot, Newport (Gwent) and Wrexham.
South East – Bury St Edmunds (more detail in full article)
South West – Southampton (more detail in full article)
The Central Family Court will remain a point of entry for financial remedy cases and emergency or urgent divorce petitions.
Bury St Edmunds has been identified as the likely venue for the London and South East Centre but consultation has not been completed, and implementation is not expected until October 2015. The Bury St Edmunds building is being refurbished and is currently unoccupied. Building works are expected to be completed in March 2015. The Bury building was apparently the most cost effective option, is a sufficient size and provides the greatest scope to improve the service delivered to court users.
Southampton Combined Court is proposed as the divorce centre for the South West. The court has staff resources and office space available due to the movement of some other administrative work out of Southampton. Consequently the recruitment and set up costs for the new unit would be significantly reduced. Apparently the legal resource in Southampton is also sufficient in terms of Legal Advisers, which includes the pool available across Hampshire. In terms of judiciary, Southampton and the surrounding area has the highest proportion of District Judge allocation in the region. Implementation of the South West divorce centre is planned for April 2015. This is because the region needed time to consider the potential accommodation options as well as the impact of other projects being undertaken in the region.
Divorce petitions should be sent to the centres by post, unless there is an urgent reason to issue at the counter. It will be possible to attend in person at one of the centres during counter opening hours, but the petition or application will go into the ordinary queue unless it is urgent.
All uncontested petitions will be prepared and made ready for initial decree nisi consideration by a legal adviser based at the centre, supervised by district judges at the centre who will handle any contested applications, annulments and judicial separation applications. Legal advisers will not handle any financial remedy cases. Financial remedy applications that don’t require a hearing – most significantly applications by consent – will be handled by district judges at the centre, unless workloads get too great, in which case the work may be shared between centres.
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