Court modernisation

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The 11 divorce centres are apparently being phased out this year, to be replaced by an online system based in the new national Civil and Family Service Centre at Stoke on Trent. The online divorce service has received more than 35,000 applications since it launched in May 2018, with a reduction in errors in applications from an astonishing 40% to less than 1%.

In April, the current President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, told the Resolution conference that the regional divorce centres ‘have not worked well’ and that some, particularly Bury St Edmunds, Liverpool and Bradford had ‘provided a wholly unacceptable service’. In the same month, Sir James Munby, the previous President said in a judgment that the centres had become ‘bywords for delay and inefficiency, essentially because HMCTS has been unable or unwilling to furnish them with adequate numbers of staff and judges’. Sir James expressed the view that the entire divorce process should be made digital from beginning to end as soon as possible. Statistics issued in 2018 suggested that the average time to obtain a decree nisi was over 26½ weeks and that the average time to decree absolute was over 51 weeks – almost an entire year. Delays in obtaining a decree nisi can have a major impact on a couple’s ability to move on with their financial settlement, as the court cannot make a financial order on divorce until the decree nisi has been granted. The delays at Bury St Edmunds, the main centre for divorces for London and the south-east, have been a source of real concern, including a 2 week wait or longer before the petition is actually issued and an average of 195 days from issue of the petition to grant of decree nisi.

Following a trial at Manchester Civil Justice Centre, the Justice Minister has announced that vulnerable people, including the victims of domestic abuse, will be able to participate in trials by way of video hearings, using a video link from a computer in their solicitor’s office. This option is expected to be of particular use in cases involving injunction applications in cases involving domestic abuse.

More generally, the Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has put back completion of the court modernisation programme by one year to 2023. The programme involves the national implementation of a new in-court system to record the result of cases digitally and instantly. In May, the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill received its second reading; it will establish a judicially chaired committee, tasked with developing new, simplified rules around online services in civil, family and tribunal proceedings.