In July HMCTS confirmed that the use of its online divorce portal will be made mandatory for legal representatives from 13 September 2021 (although it will remain possible for some types of application to be made on paper). This follows from it becoming mandatory last August to file financial remedy applications for consent orders online (again, with some limited exceptions).
The aim of the online service is to reduce the potential for error and so speed up the progress of applications. According to HMCTS, fewer than 1% of online divorce applications need to be returned because of user error, compared to 40% on the previous paper system. Our own experience of submitting applications through the online portal is that they are dealt with far quicker than their paper counterparts: with divorce petitions issued in less than a week; Forms A, in some cases, issued and orders for directions made that same day; and consent orders generally approved and sealed in around four weeks. This is a significant reduction in the processing times for paper applications, which also often varied significantly based on the particular court dealing with the matter.
Looking specifically at divorce, the use of the digital service continues to rise, and in the last family court statistics that covered the first quarter of 2021, 70% of all petitions were digital, up from 41% in the same period in 2020. Although the service will only be mandatory for legal representatives, its use is already high amongst personal applicants with around 80% of applications being made online.
Clearly there are extensive benefits of using the online service, but where we have experienced issues these tend to be difficult to resolve with those operating the online portal. There can also sometimes be circumstances where it is impossible to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, in which case you cannot progress your application: matters in family law are not always as black and white as the online system needs them to be.
A major drawback to the online portal is that users do not have automatic access to all of their teams’ matters. In order to give access to a particular case to another registered user in your team, you need to manually ‘share a case’ with them. This is impossible to do if the user who is originally assigned the case is unable to access the portal for technical reasons, or suddenly and unexpectedly is called away from the office.
Despite this, our experience of using the online portal is overwhelmingly positive and it is of significant benefit to our clients. It results in less costs because we spend less time on paperwork, and less time chasing various courts to see where that paperwork is in the system. It also offers reassurance as applications are dealt with promptly, and you can confidently tell clients where their application is in the process, and how long it will take to move to the next stage.
Looking ahead, HMCTS aims to finish development of the financial remedy contested application digital journey. The pilot scheme was expanded in June 2021 and it looks likely that in time, it will also become mandatory for practitioners to file Forms A online. It will also be interesting to see how the introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorce in April 2022 will affect the use of the online divorce service, and whether it will cause a further rise in digital applications.