The first divorce cases to be carried out online have begun their progress through the legal system, officials have confirmed.
Unhappy husbands and wives have applied for divorce via screens in the first trial of a method that judges and Ministers hope will revolutionise family law.
A pilot project has been run in a divorce court in Nottingham with ‘really positive’ results, according to initial assessments.
But court managers have disclosed that four out of 10 people who fill in divorce application forms without the help of a lawyer have their request for the divorce process to begin rejected because they cannot complete the form correctly.
As a result those who have taken part in the online divorce trial have had to visit the Nottingham court centre to be guided through the on-screen form by officials.
The pilot at the East Midlands Divorce unit was launched earlier this year in the hope of fulfilling ambitions to use modern technology to make divorce simpler and cheaper.
Last year the most senior family judge, President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, promised that when digitised divorce is in operation ‘we will at last have escaped from a court system still in too large part moored in the world of the late Mr Charles Dickens’.
However the details of the pilot released by Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) said that under the project people applying for divorce online have continued to have to go to court to be guided through the application forms.
This suggests that the chance for a husband or wife of securing divorce by email or tweet from home remains some way in the future.
Husbands and wives have been able to apply for divorce by filling in paper forms for more than two decades.
In cases where the divorce is uncontested, and where there are no arguments over property, money or children, divorces can be completed without the couple having to go to court. An online system has the potential to make divorce even easier.
The report on the Nottingham pilot, written by Adam Lennon, divorce service managers at HMCTS, said: ‘The pilot has proven extremely successful.
‘Whilst it is a small scale pilot it has allowed us to build confidence in the design of the system before we add features to it to make it a fully online experience and extend the pilot to a wider audience.’
Mr Lennon said 40 per cent of all divorce bids made through the D8 application form supplied by the courts are rejected.
To try to overcome the difficulties the Nottingham pilot supplied extra guidance, and online questions are tailored to the specific circumstances of the divorce.
For example, where someone says their grounds for divorce are the bad behaviour of their spouse, they ‘will only see questions and guidance relating to that’, Mr Lennon said.
He added that the online system had ‘built-in valiation to minimise the possible reasons for rejections’, which ‘covers things such as proving people have been married for 12 months or only allowing them to choose five years’ separation if they have been married for long enough.’
The report said: ‘The next stage of testing will be extended so that selected users will be able to make their application from home.’
Under the 1969 Divorce Act, only couples who have been married for at least a year can divorce.
The quickest divorces can be obtained on grounds of adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, and other grounds include five years of separation, or two years if both of a couple agree to the break-up.
The online divorce scheme has raised warning light, according to critics.
Harry Benson, of the Marriage Foundation think-tank, said: ‘Divorce should be taken seriously, and there is definitely a risk that divorces conducted online could trivialise the process.
‘We should also remember that divorce is no longer the main driver of family break-up. Divorce rates are currently the lowest since the early 1970s, and it is the rate of break-up among unmarried families that should worry us.’
Russell Bywater, a partner at Dawson Cornwell solicitors, added: ‘If one was cynical one could say the online divorce pilot is a convenient distraction to draw attention away from the inconvenient truth which is that the court service generally is woefully under-resourced and many courts are borderline administratively dysfunctional.’
A Courts and Tribunals Service spokesman said: ‘We have a world-leading legal system and are investing over £1billion to reform and enhance our courts to deliver swifter justice.
‘We have launched the first divorce application services online at three sites and will be extending the testing over the coming months. These measures will simplify the process for divorce applicants and help progress applications quickly.’
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