By Deborah Levy, consultant in the Family Law team
When I recently read that there has been an increase in DIY divorces which were adding to the backlog of processing divorces in the family courts, it took me back to the days when I used to undertake advice sessions at the Central Family Court’s Citizens Advice Bureau. While I very much enjoyed volunteering, I was always concerned at the number of divorce petitions which had been filed with the court by those acting in person - and how even a minor mistake could cause a significant delay for them. The difficulty (and I suppose that is the advantage of the legal system) is that everything needs to be accurate and correct – one mistake and the petition will be rejected.
It's not only the initial steps with regard to the preparation and accuracy of the petition which can cause issues, but the subsequent steps too. Even when instructed by a client, problems can arise – for instance clients will believe that because they've been living separate and apart from each other under the same roof for more than two years, this will mean they can be divorced based on one of the facts which requires ‘two years separation with consent’. The difficulty here is that when applying for the Decree Nisi and filing the required Statement in Support, the court will often regard the domestic arrangements to be such that it is viewed that in reality the parties aren't actually separated or haven't been living separate and apart for more than two years. If the Decree Nisi is rejected because of this, the petition will have to be amended. There is a prescribed manner to amend a petition with red underlining – not commonly known by a lay person. The problems that were brought to me reminded me of the game of snakes and ladders – one climbed up the ladder process only to have ‘met a snake’ and slithered down again. This can be very frustrating for the clients.
There are a multitude of other difficulties which can arise in what would otherwise be a straightforward scenario:
- The spouse who will not formally admit to adultery even though the petitioning spouse knows full well of the affair;
- Issues relating to service where one party’s whereabouts are unknown or he/she simply will not co-operate in the process;
- Refusing to sign the Acknowledgement of Service or where a period of more than 12 months has elapsed between Decree Nisi and the application for Decree Absolute where a statement in support is required which may commonly not be known by the lay person.
In addition to the main points I have highlighted, following Brexit there may be issues relating to jurisdiction. Do the parties have the ability to file in this jurisdiction, and is it even in their best interests to do so?
My other main concerns highlighted by many years of experience are that parties who do their own divorce often overlook the need to address the financial consequences until many years down the line when it may either be too late (one party may have remarried, potentially barring them from seeking a settlement) or such a situation may be prejudicial in other respects.
Progressing a divorce efficiently and securing the best and most appropriate financial settlement are investments that are well worth making for most. Trying to cut corners often does not pay off. During lockdown, I am styling my own hair as well as attempting to cover up the grey – there is no way that I am doing this as efficiently or as well as my hairdresser! Hopefully, I am not causing too much damage, but I know that the money I usually spend on my hairdresser who is an expert in his field is a very wise move.