The proliferation of 'online divorce' over the last decade (from intriguing novelty to market presence) has highlighted not just a growing appetite for accessibility but also simplicity in the process. It was therefore only a matter of time before the Ministry of Justice decided to try and cut out what was left of the middle-man and instead attack the aforementioned issues at source.
Coming as part of a reported investment of over £1 billion in 'Digital Justice', HMCTS has recently expanded their pilot around the country to four regional centres. Rather than a traditional Petition, users are presented with a short 'smart' Questionnaire that walks applicants through the key questions they would ordinarily find in the long-form version (which is produced at the end) albeit supported by links to further information if they have any queries. The user-experience is very much a priority for the team - if you have ever had cause to search the .gov.uk website, you will get some idea as to the overall design choices.
During the pilot phase, the Petition could then be printed off but the scheme has rapidly gone all-electronic to the extent that users are now able to take a photo of their marriage certificate to upload in place of the original (which may be unsettling for some practitioners).
For those petitioning on grounds of unreasonable behaviour, the statement of case is an intriguing prospect - by default, it asks for three examples and while there is an option to add another field (or 'paragraph'), this is a subtle way of trying to minimise the stress (for applicants and respondents) of completing this section. For those solicitors who have always distanced themselves from the antiquated 'poison pen' versions (which can still be found in the wild even today), this is a welcome development.
Early results are encouraging - since 16 January, 377 links to the private beta have been given out and 302 petitions received. The project is due to enter a public beta by the end of April 2018 with solicitor access due some time in the Spring.
There is still some scope for improvement. Solicitors attending a recent presentation by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), highlighted the potential for confusion surrounding the applicant's claims for financial orders. This is perhaps the section of the Petition that most solicitors spend time explaining to their clients whichever side of the matter they are on but the MoJ have said they will listen to the feedback.
The Petition has long since been a straightforward formality, and most modern practitioners draft it to ensure that the temperature of the matter is kept to a minimum. There is no escaping the fact that divorce lawyers are a distress purchase and as a firm we welcome any opportunity to reduce the demands, financial or emotional on our clients. We are hugely encouraged by the pace and progress of the Online Divorce Project and await the next stage of its development (the team have said they are looking at how they might take the claims for financial orders online too).