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LEGAL COMMENT: Online divorce pilot comes to an end

The extended pilot of the online divorce system concludes today, 29 March 2019.

The public beta phase went live on 1 May 2018 following the private beta stage of the reform project launched by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service. The scheme has enabled couples to apply for an uncontested divorce digitally via smart forms, removing the need to fill in paper forms and post them to court.

Emma Collins, Partner in the Family team at national law firm Weightmans comments:

“The end to the online divorce pilot is a timely prompt to consider the issues around the UK’s very outdated divorce laws. The pilot is a step in the right direction in making the process as straightforward as possible, but it doesn’t address the fact that more needs to be done to increase people’s understanding of divorce proceedings if they are going to navigate the system without legal support. Whether or not an application is carried out online or on paper, many still think all divorces will result in a court hearing, for example.
“While we are still waiting for the government to publish the outcomes of its recent consultation to reform the legal requirements for divorce, it’s important not to think that the closing of the pilot marks the end of a period of change. Any divorce law reform will almost inevitably lead to a major overhaul of the entire system, potentially triggering the need for yet another pilot. And recent concerns around the new online probate service increasing the risk of fraud due to lacking the relevant checks will also put pressure on government to ensure the online divorce review system is watertight.
“And we mustn’t alienate those who aren’t able to access the internet. Online solutions are not the panacea for everything – we only need to look to the roll out of universal credit as an example of how moving to an online-only system can be fraught with challenges. Those who have previously qualified for Legal Aid might not be guaranteed the same level of support via the online divorce route. Although stripping back the paperwork and making the process easier for individuals can only be a good thing, the government must continue to educate people about what the process actually involves, so that affordable routes to resolving financial disputes such as mediation do not get overlooked.”

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