Divorce and lockdown: Can you get divorced during lockdown?
The Court system and legal profession have changed rapidly since the first period of lockdown in March 2020. Even in a pandemic, there is no 'one size fits all' option available for divorce.
If you’re looking to start divorce proceedings during lockdown or during the COVID-19 pandemic, you can still seek advice from a solicitor or start the process without the help of a lawyer. There are various options available to you, from an ‘online’ divorce service to legal representation, which are explained in detail below.
The process of divorce is application based. This means that the Court service doesn’t provide advice about issues such as money and children – you must inform it of your intentions by completing an application.
'Online' divorce service
www.gov.uk: Government website which offers an online service for divorce. The Court fee of £550.00 is still payable but you can still ask the Court to assess if you have to pay all or part of the fee again using the online service.
The website is very user friendly and sends email alerts to confirm that forms have been submitted.
The online divorce service is open to members of the public who want to divorce without a solicitor and also to legal professionals. This sounds like the perfect option for many, however it’s important to be aware that it is a relatively new system and therefore there have been some teething issues, particularly if a divorce is complex. The system lacks flexibility and if something goes wrong (eg a spelling mistake in a name), it can prove to be a lengthy and frustrating process to resolve.
The online service for divorce does not assist you in resolving any issues relating to your children, home, other money or pensions, but it may help you keep your legal costs down if you can divorce using the government service, then seek advice from a solicitor about the more complex issues such as money and children.
'Paper' divorce service
Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre: At one time, divorce cases were issued at a Court in your locality, so if you lived in Wakefield, you sent your paperwork and a Court fee to Wakefield Civil Justice Centre, or if you lived in Leeds, the Leeds Combined Court Centre. This system has now changed and local and regional courts no longer accept divorce applications.
You can still issue a paper copy of your application to the divorce centre in Bury St Edmunds if you don’t want to use the government online system. Whilst it offers greater flexibility, if your circumstances are not straightforward it is likely to be slower. The fees are the same whether you issue your application online or in paper form.
This service is open to members of the public who want to divorce without a solicitor and also to legal professionals, although again it does not assist you in resolving any issues relating to your children, home, other money or pensions.
Over and above the two main processes ie paper or online, when divorcing you also have a choice of whether or not to divorce 'in person' without legal representation, or with legal representation, using the service of a solicitor or other legal advisor.
There are various online providers: they may or may not be solicitors and may or may not represent you. Those offering very low fixed fees often allow you access to forms which you can obtain for free using the government website. Some offer a 'managed service' which simply means they provide some help and tell you what to do and when, but won’t offer advice if you run into difficulties and are therefore not offering to represent you, but helping you represent yourself. It is therefore important to read the small print and understand what the online provider is actually doing for you.
If you live in Leeds, York, Wakefield or Harrogate and need to attend Court to deal with either a cost issue on divorce or an issue relating to money or children, hearings will still take place at your local Court and you will not be asked to travel to Bury St Edmunds.
A solicitor in the Yorkshire area will typically charge in the region of £600.00 to £1200.00 including VAT, plus the Court fee of £550.00. This is often on a fixed fee basis. This does not cover the cost of representing a client in relation to children or money issues. Many firms, such as Emsleys Solicitors, will accept payment in monthly instalments. If you divorce on a fault basis of unreasonable behaviour or adultery you may be able to recover your fees from the other party.
You are obliged to consider family mediation as an alternative to the Court process, subject to specific exemptions.
As the pandemic continues, most mediators are offering online mediation via Zoom. Zoom is an app that can be downloaded on a smart phone, tablet or laptop. Once you’ve arranged a Zoom meeting with a mediator, they will send you a meeting invitation and you will be required to input a meeting ID and password into Zoom at the time of the meeting.
If mediation is not appropriate, the Court service is still operating, although most hearings are being dealt with using conference calls. If your hearing is taking place via conference call, you will be asked to provide the Court with your telephone number. The Court will phone you before the time of the hearing and you will be asked to state your name. You will join the call with your solicitor and/or barrister (if applicable) and the hearing will begin once the Judge joins the call.
In some cases, the Judge will specifically direct that the hearing should take place in a different way. The hearing may take place either face-to-face with COVID-19 health and safety measures in place (eg masks) or via a video platform. Face-to-face hearings can be a strange experience due to coronavirus: there are limited staff in an almost empty court building and no refreshments are available. Video hearings take place through CVP: a cloud system developed by the Court. You are sent an invite to log in prior to the hearing.
As with children issues, you are obliged to consider family mediation as an alternative to the Court process if matters cannot be agreed by both parties. As above, most mediators are offering online mediation via Zoom.
Some Court hearings are being dealt with via conference call but many are by CVP video platform. In limited circumstances a Judge may specifically direct that there should be a face-to-face hearing.
The range of options open to the public when resolving financial issues have continued to develop during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many meetings now taking place over Zoom, rather than a number of attendees travelling to Court. Sometimes more than one platform is used at the same time to facilitate discussion in private with a barrister during a hearing over CVP or telephone conference.
Arbitration and private dispute resolution hearings are offered as an alternative to the Court service. If you take this option, highly skilled members of the legal profession will make decisions in relation to your Case, albeit at a cost in excess of the fees charged by the Court.
The Court have also introduced a new online system for applications for financial matters. Your case goes through a gatekeeping step to assess where and what type of Judge should deal with it, before it is allocated to a local Court.
If you and your partner have agreed on financial issues, there is an online system to upload documents in order to obtain a clean break order. Again, this is a new system and the lack of flexibility has caused some frustration.
Will it make a difference if I divorce during the coronavirus pandemic?
For the reasons outlined above, divorcing during the pandemic may be more fragmented. The Court service experienced significant delays between March and September 2020, however it is now getting back on track.
Emsleys Solicitors’ experienced and knowledgeable Family Law department is here to help. The team can guide you throughout the process of divorcing during the pandemic, keeping you informed at each stage and advising you on the new online systems.
Our Leeds offices are currently subject to Tier 3 rules. Our Family Law team is offering a limited face-to-face service on a case-by-case basis: meetings are taking place at our No.6 Colton Mill office where there is sufficient space to ensure social distancing. Alternatively, the team can offer a free initial meeting via Zoom or telephone appointment.
Contact us now
If you choose to seek advice from one of our solicitors, we can offer an initial consultation via a video conferencing platform, such as Zoom. At this stage, we will explain the divorce process and the options available to you. We understand speaking to a lawyer may feel daunting, so if you wish, you can invite a friend or family member to your first video appointment – please speak to our team for more details.
You can pay your legal fees on the basis of ‘time taken’, i.e. an hourly rate, or you can ask us for a fixed fee. To help with your budget, we can arrange for fees to be paid by way of monthly instalments. We also offer ‘pay as you go’ and payment at the end of your case if you are financially eligible for a divorce or litigation loan. We will talk you through our full range of payment options.
An initial appointment at Emsleys for advice and information about divorce, separation, civil partnership, protecting wealth and assets prior to entering into a relationship, children issues and financial issues is free of charge. We don’t limit the time of the first appointment. We can discuss your options with you at this initial appointment. We confirm our charges and advice in writing and ask you to sign and agree to this before we undertake any work. You can pay us in monthly instalments and our charges can often be on a fixed fee basis, or if you would prefer, a time taken basis.