Many areas of life that are usually dealt with in person have been conducted online during the pandemic – and divorce proceedings are no exception.
As the COVID-19 restrictions ease, however, and near-normal service starts to resume, will digital divorces become the way forward or will clients return to their solicitors’ offices and courtrooms?
Are more divorcing couples now having digital divorces?
Most mediators only offer virtual meetings, while court hearings take place via phone and video. Divorce proceedings had been heading online before the pandemic but that change had only just come in for solicitors. Coronavirus has accelerated the decision to go digital.
What are the advantages of taking divorce online?
When it comes to the mediation aspects of divorce, some people feel more comfortable doing it over Zoom or Teams because they don’t have to be in the same room as their ex-partner. Mediators do have ways of getting around that potential issue though without going online.
For people handling their own divorce, taking the digital route means they can do it after normal working hours as the internet is available to them at any time. Of course, their application won’t be processed by the court until the working week begins, but it can be uploaded after hours. Digital divorces are quicker; during the pandemic court offices have been working remotely.
Are there any disadvantages?
Some aspects of the divorce process are definitely not best dealt with online. Couples who try to manage their own divorce proceedings online can find that the process moves more quickly than they anticipate and then find themselves at a disadvantage being divorced without first having sorted out their finances.
A good solicitor will advise their clients that they can use the court’s digital portal to reduce the costs on divorce, but that they are most unwise to ever consider not seeking the advice of a lawyer on where they stand financially before starting the divorce process online. This is because some rights, for example spouses pensions, are lost at the moment the divorce is finalised.
Advice is also necessary because many people fail to appreciate that just because they are divorced that in itself doesn’t bring to an end the financial claims of their former spouse. Further steps are needed in order to finalise those claims which otherwise remain open, potentially forever.
Also, some divorces produced online don’t look quite as official as paper ones. There have been occasions where clients haven’t been sure if they’ve received their court papers or not. A solicitor can quickly clarify the position.
Do digital divorces save couples time and money?
Online divorce proceedings are designed for processing the divorce as opposed to settling the couple’s finances. If it’s a straightforward divorce, it can save parting spouses money as they only have the court fee to pay and not the solicitor.
Other than the fixed legal time limits, it can also save them time as the digital paperwork can be turned around much more quickly than the paper documents.
Solicitors also have access to the court’s digital portal and utilise the facility where they can to speed up the process for their clients where this is possible and appropriate.
Using the digital process without first seeking proper legal advice can mean that couples can lose out financially.
Will digital divorce continue once the pandemic is over?
With regard to processing divorce documents, the online option will continue. It is highly unlikely that the courts will backtrack on this now as removing the need for paperwork must save them a lot of time and money. Well before the pandemic, it was always the courts’ intention to go digital wherever possible. The outbreak has served to hasten this development.
Divorce hearings will continue to be held in court to some extent despite the digital revolution. Some hearings don’t work well online. Many people find them less than satisfactory, so in an ideal world, they will go back to face-to-face. On the other hand, directions hearings are procedural so may continue to take place either by video or phone, as they can be dealt with quite efficiently in this way.
Furthermore, financial consent orders work really well digitally. They can be uploaded to the court portal and dealt with rapidly, within a maximum time scale of four weeks.
Pre-pandemic, these orders were taking three to four months, so going digital has really speeded things up. However, it is important that clients get independent legal advice on finances before considering applying for a consent order so that they are aware of all of their rights and understand the implications and consequences of the terms of the proposed order.
Hopefully, those hearings where final decisions are made with regard to the children of divorcing couples will no longer be held remotely – that way people can feel more confident that these important and emotional aspects have been dealt with properly. The courts are already moving towards listing these hearings in a courtroom.
Body language can’t be read as accurately over a video call as it can in person. Video links can be disjointed – people start talking at the same time, especially on phones when there are no visual clues, or they can be cut off. Mobile signals at home can be unreliable and, as many of us have witnessed during the pandemic, there can be delays getting people on the line. While these are all challenges with technology that we’ve come to expect, it adds to what is already a highly-stressful time.
Some hearings are already going back to being held in courtrooms, so clearly, the intention is there. I imagine they’ll increase as social distancing regulations ease, making it easier to use more courtrooms at the same time.
Bearing all of this in mind, ideally, there should be a hybrid approach to divorce proceedings as we emerge from the pandemic.
About Angela Maxfield
Angela qualified as a solicitor in 1985 and joined Nelsons’ expert family law team in December 2020 as an associate. Angela specialises in family law and advises on divorce, dissolution of civil partnerships, finances and private children disputes.
For more information on divorce and separation, please visit www.nelsonslaw.co.uk/divorce-and-separation or call 0800 024 1976.