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Our blog provides illustrated practical guides for those going through the divorce process, plus news on divorce, money and family breakdown.

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9 January 2017

Government's online divorce petition may be completed by end of this summer

Lawyers should remain patient over the planned introduction of online divorce proceedings, a family specialist has said, as the government prepares a pilot project to streamline the separation process, reports Solicitors Journal.

(People using Intelligent Divorce’s co-operative service already have access to questions online that allow their petition to then be completed for them by their case manager.)

In its vision paper, ‘Transforming our Justice System’, the Ministry of Justice pledged to reduce the stress and length of divorce by simplifying the process and ‘put as much as possible of it online’.

The Times reported this week that the government’s plan will be piloted before being introduced across England and Wales this June. However, HMCTS is yet to publicly commit to a full launch date when the online system will be available to the general public.

Responding to the news, solicitor Tony Roe, who made a series of freedom of information requests of MoJ, and whose research broke the news that Bury St Edmunds would be the single divorce centre for London and the South East, said ‘it would be wrong to think that a complete digitalised divorce process will happen any time soon’.

‘At best only the petition may be available to complete online by the end of the summer,’ said Roe.

‘The government’s “agile methodology” approach to projects apparently means that new processes are built bit by bit, starting with the petition in this case.’

‘It has been decided that there should be a pilot site and an announcement on this will be made very shortly. However, any such pilot will require minor rule changes via a practice direction. As yet, no such PD has been published, said Roe.

‘Excitement and expectation is growing in the family law community but we need to be patient and await the modernisation programme which seems likely to occur step by step, starting with a likely pilot, a PD, and only then the first digital petition,’ he continued.

‘It seems that family modernisation is leading the way being one of a small number of similar digital projects involving, for example, probate and tribunals.’

Roe, who has spoken to HMCTS in the light of The Times’ story, revealed that research has been carried out with ‘end users’ – divorcing spouses – over how problems with the present procedure can be best tackled.

This, he said, includes working with a specialist accessibility centre to help ensure the service is compliant and accessible for users who need additional features to allow them to access the service, such as using screen readers.

The digital online court has been backed by the president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, who said it was ‘key to the success of the entire court modernisation programme’.

Lord Justice Fulford, who is overseeing the court modernisation programme, has also been vocal in his support for the online court and said Citizens Advice Bureaux could play a key role in ensuring access to justice for those digitally excluded.

The Civil Justice Council also backed the programme but highlighted similar concerns over ‘the scale of digital exclusion’.