02:14, May 06 215 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-06 02:14:05
Log in, break up – new ‘easy’ way to get a divorce online

Breaking up is never easy, as Abba sang, but the Ministry of Justice is so pleased with its online divorce pilot that it has launched the scheme nationwide this month.

The latest initiative in the department’s £1bn modernisation programme enables couples splitting up across England and Wales to complete their applications on a website without going to court.

Language has been simplified for the digital form, allowing payments and evidence to be uploaded from home. More than 1,000 petitions were issued through the system during its test phase, with 91% of users, according to the MoJ, reporting that they were satisfied with the service. Sir James Munby, the judge in charge of the high court’s family division, recently described online divorce as a “triumphant success” and “final proof positive that whatever people think, government can do IT [information technology]”.

A refined version of the scheme was rolled out across England and Wales at the beginning of May. The department says there has been a 95% drop in the number of applications being returned because of mistakes.

One woman responding to the MoJ survey said: “It was marvellous, pain-free and less stressful than the paper form which I tried several years ago but got fed up of it being rejected.”

Welcoming the change as a means of reducing the stress of parting, the justice minister Lucy Frazer said: “Allowing divorce applications to be made online will help make sure we are best supporting people going through an often difficult and painful time. More people will have the option of moving from paper-based processes to online systems which will cut waste, speed up services which can be safely expedited, and better fit with modern life.”

The quickening pace of court modernisation has, however, raised concerns in parts of the legal profession about funding for the ambitious programme which, it was revealed last week, will see 6,500 court and backroom jobs disappearing across England and Wales by 2022.

This week the National Audit Office will publish a report on the effectiveness of technological and cultural changes being pushed through by HM Courts & Tribunals Service. Among other developments being trialled are virtual courts for tax tribunals, where claimants can participate in hearings – giving evidence and interacting with lawyers and the judge – from home via computer laptop cameras.

There will be more remote video hearings, online pleas for minor offences, video replay facilities for jurors in their retiring rooms and fewer courtrooms. More than 250 courts have already closed since 2010.

Lawyers, renowned for generating mountains of paperwork, are finally beginning to catch up with the digital revolution. Anxious to ensure that the integrity of the justice system is preserved, last week the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, circulated all judges with details of the impact of the changes.

There have been concerns about technology’s expansion into the courts. Last year, a report by the organisation Transform Justice alleged that “trial by Skype” defendants, participating remotely from police stations or prisons in virtual court hearings, find it difficult to hold confidential discussions with their lawyers, become disconnected from remote proceedings and may be disadvantaged during sentencing.

The more immediate problems facing the justice system are financial. The MoJ has suffered the deepest cuts of any department since 2010 and has been told to find a further £600m in savings in the next two years.

The lord chief justice last month referred to underinvestment in court buildings “amounting to neglect”, and Lady Justice Hallett, a senior court of appeal judge, said the English justice system was hanging on to its reputation as the best in the world by its “fingernails”.

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