Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre Update
In recent weeks it has emerged that there are extensive delays at the largest divorce centre in the country, based in Bury St Edmunds. This divorce centre processes all divorce, dissolution or judicial separation petitions received from the East of England, the South East of England and London, an area including some 17 million people, which used to be covered by about 45 county courts, including the Principal Registry in London. The centre processes on average 40,000 petition applications a year.
Divorce centres were established in 2015 with the aim of streamlining the process of divorce, dissolution or judicial separation. Rather than have these cases dealt with by some 110 county courts spread around England and Wales, all divorces, dissolution of civil partnerships or judicial separation applications would be handled by just 11 centres. The primary aim of course was to save costs. However, many family law practitioners stated from the outset their fear that if a large part of the savings were to come from having far fewer court staff dealing with these types of applications, there would always be a high likelihood that the centres would not be provided with the staff numbers necessary to handle the high workloads, Unfortunately this seems to be the case with Bury St Edmunds.
When the centres were first established the government claimed that divorce petitions could be handled in as little as 48 hours. However as of 15 June 2018 the centre said that it was processing petitions received on 30th May (12 working days in arrears). Whilst it is generally administrators who process petitions, the situation becomes even more compacted where paperwork has to be looked at by a district judge, such as Decree Nisi applications.
When Decree Nisi or Consent Order applications arrive at the Bury St Edmunds centre, they are first picked up and processed by administrators. As of 15 June 2018 the administrators were processing applications received on 4th May 2018 (30 working days in arrears). These applications are sent to the Judiciary to look at but unfortunately the Judiciary were only in mid June processing applications for Decree Nisi received on 19th April (41 working days in arrears). Once the Judiciary have looked at the applications and made a decision, the administration staff then process the decision within 28 days of receiving it from the Judiciary. If the application is granted a pronouncement date is set for a further 4-5 weeks on from processing.
Susan Acland-Hood, CEO of HM Courts & Tribunals Service recently stated on Twitter: “We know this is not good enough – we have been short of staff in Bury St Edmunds, but should have picked up the issues earlier – we are now using the extra staff (and help from other divorce centres) to sort this, and you should start to see improvement soon.”
Those of us forced to deal with this centre on a daily basis in our professional and personal lives wait with bated breath to see whether any improvement will be forthcoming.
Amanda Erskine is a solicitor in the Family department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors.