“Getting a divorce is quick and cheap” … Think again!
In 2015 the concept of a Single Family Court came into being – the idea that the family judges could use any court building to hear cases and that there would be 11 regional divorce centres across the country dedicated to centralising the family court’s work and distributing it evenly to different courts. For the East of England, the South-East and London, the Bury St Edmunds divorce centre opened. For anyone starting divorce proceedings in these regions the paperwork must be sent here to be processed. The Court also has its own dedicated telephone line so court users can speak to someone at Bury St Edmunds and get real time updates on their case.
Unfortunately, like most of the Courts across the UK, Bury St Edmunds is not fully staffed. Consequently the Court is working in arrears and on average it is now taking 9-12 months for a divorce case to be fully completed and Decree Absolute granted. This timescale is merely in cases where both parties are in agreement regarding the divorce and financial settlement. The Court helpline is also under pressure with waiting times of over an hour before a call is answered. In some cases practitioners have been on hold queuing in the system for 6 hours.
These issues are also further impacted with the increase in the divorce petition fee. We reported back in March 2016 that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) had announced an increase to the Court fee for submitting a divorce petition. The fee rose from £410 to £550. This prompted a number of organisations to protest and lobby the Government regarding access to justice and the impact this increase could have on parties who want a divorce but may now fear they cannot afford to get one.
More recently the House of Commons Justice Committee made recommendations that the divorce petition fee rise to £550 should be rescinded. Unfortunately the MOJ has rejected this recommendation and stated that “Help is available to those who qualify under the fee remissions scheme, known as Help With Fees, which helps to ensure that those who are unable to pay are not denied access to justice. In the circumstances of a divorce (or any other matter where the parties have a contrary interest in proceedings) the applicant is assessed on his or her own, rather than the household’s, means. On this basis, women are more likely to qualify for a fee remission than men.
“The new fee of £550 for a divorce came into effect on 21 March. Although it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions, there is no evidence so far that the fee increase has led to a fall in applications for a divorce. We are continuing to monitor the position carefully.
“Overall, we believe that the fee for a divorce is reasonable when considered against the objectives, generating an estimated £12 million per annum in additional fee income as a contribution to the savings required to make sure that the courts and tribunals are properly funded, and that access to justice is protected.”
For anyone who is considering starting divorce proceedings it is now more important than ever to try and agree the basis for the divorce and who will pay the Court fee before any paperwork is submitted. In what is already a lengthy process, agreeing these points before a petition is submitted to the Court will help parties save time and money on unnecessary negotiations. Barker Gotelee can offer anyone in this situation a free initial consultation to discuss all the options available and the likely costs involved. To book an appointment with one of our experienced family solicitors please contact the family team assistant Victoria Brosnan on 01473 617 317.
Amanda Erskine is a solicitor in the Family department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors.