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HMCTS to switch off ‘old’ divorce portal on 31 March

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

(10 March 2022)

Solicitors will not be able to apply for a divorce on behalf of their clients – unless it is urgent – for one week starting at the end of this month, as HM Courts & Tribunals Service prepares to introduce a new regime designed to remove conflict from the legal process of separation.

Lawyers were shocked to discover when they logged into the MyHMCTS portal last month that the current digital divorce service would be closing ‘soon’ due to upcoming reforms – but not given any guidance on what they should do before the new system is introduced.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service has now confirmed that the ‘old service’ will be unavailable from 31 March. A new system will begin on 6 April.

Applications saved on the current service must be submitted by 4pm on 31 March. Paper applications must be received by the court by the same time.

From 31 March, practitioners will no longer be able to apply on the current paper or digital systems, or access a saved digital application not yet issued by the court. From 31 March to 5 April, the digital service will not accept new applications.

However, HMCTS will continue to accept urgent applications where the issue of the divorce petition is time critical, such as when it is critical for jurisdiction or when a freezing injunction is needed. Decree nisi and decree absolute applications that have been issued will be saved and remain available on the service.

The new system ushers in a new era of ‘no-fault’ divorce, removing the ability to make allegations about the conduct of a spouse and allowing couples to end their marriage jointly.

HMCTS confirmed that it has engaged with practitioners on the new system, including interviews, focus groups, demonstrations and discussions to explain and test the forthcoming changes and gather feedback.

Last month Slater and Gordon announced it had halved its petitioner fixed fee as a result of the reforms. The announcement prompted the Gazette to ask other firms if they intend to lower their fees.

Helen Clyne, an associate in the family team at Debenhams Ottaway, said her firm did not expect a significant change in costs.

‘Since it was possible to submit applications for divorce online in 2018, followed by the whole process going online during 2019, we have found that a significant number of clients are comfortable handling the process themselves. The system is user-friendly and straightforward for simple divorces,’ Clyne said.

Caroline Ford, a partner in the family team at Fletcher Day, said: ‘In circumstances under the present law, where a divorce petition uses unreasonable behaviour there is the cost to the client of drafting a list of unreasonable behaviours sufficient to convince a judge that there should be a divorce. This cost will be removed, resulting in the costs of divorce being less.

‘The removal under the new law of the ability to defend the decision to divorce means that there will be no legal fees in connection with defended divorces. As a result of the new divorce law coming into force, Fletcher Day’s fees for divorce will be less than usual as the time it takes to draft the divorce petition is reduced.’

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)