This was first published in the Wigan Observer on 22nd April 2014.
Q: Is using online divorce and family law services a good idea?
A: It’s now 12 months since the loss of Legal Aid for most family law cases not involving issues of domestic abuse. Criminal Legal Aid is currently in the news as it goes through similar drastic reductions and it cannot have escaped most peoples’ notice that a recent high profile trial has resulted in at least one individual changing his mind about supporting the Legal Aid cuts.
The Government believed that by removing access to Legal Aid, separating couples could be persuaded to use mediation to resolve any differences and thereby avoid unnecessary applications to court. However, despite criticisms of many family lawyers pessimistic views at the time, their worst fears have come to pass. The reality is with many family lawyers dropping out of Legal Aid, individuals are not having their options explained to them and consequently not choosing mediation, with recent figures showing there has been between 50%-75% reduction in mediation in different areas of the country.
Evidence also seems to suggest that fewer individuals are legally represented than ever before with Family Courts seeing many more litigants in person with consequential increases in court hearing times and presumably costs to the Court Service.
The most recent statistics from the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) indicate a 10% reduction in the last six months alone in Private Law children’s cases between parents. The Government may suggest that their “plan is working” but taken together with the other evidence it suggests that people are simply not pursuing matters and family problems are remaining unresolved. In short that may mean children not seeing parents or separating couples unable to sort out a fair settlement of family finances.
It’s perhaps no surprise then, against this backdrop, that people are struggling to meet the costs of divorce and other family law issues themselves and are turning to websites which offer DIY divorces and the like for a low cost. A quick search on Google returns results which promise online divorces from as little as £37 and even the option to start your divorce in minutes from home or at your desk at work.
An appealing option you might say, given the current climate, for the many people who are married or in civil partnerships seeking out the cheapest possible option when it comes to separating. Let’s be honest: shopping online has become a way of life for all of us, always eager to get the best deal on anything we purchase and this now inevitably includes divorce. And yet as the old adage goes cheaper does not necessarily mean better. I would urge caution. Although initially appealing, a low-cost DIY solution may not be the best or even cheapest way of dealing with what is one of the most stressful and confusing situations an individual will find themselves in.
These types of services may only be appropriate for simple, uncontested cases where the financial situation is certain and in these situations, they can be a cost-effective solution. But for others, there can be drawbacks which you need to know about before taking the decision to buy online. I have seen more than once recently what can happen when people try to do it themselves, without legal advice, only to find some years later that they had left themselves vulnerable to court applications and increased costs, particularly when there are children or assets involved as well.
Typically, an online procedure will begin with the user completing a questionnaire. These questionnaires will include standard questions which may not fully take into account of your individual requirements. Personal circumstances could mean an online product is not suitable.
If a separation is less than amicable, or involves disputes about children and/or finances, an online solution shouldn’t be the first choice. You will need at least some initial advice so you can consider all the options. Seek out a family lawyer with experience of dealing with a range of family law problems including financial settlements and children law.
Given the rise in the use of online legal documents, it’s no wonder that they are now coming under the spotlight. The Legal Services Consumer Panel and the Legal Services Board have jointly commissioned research which will involve interviewing those who have bought legal documents online. They want to look at online divorce documents and assess the risks and challenges of an increasing trend for people to access legal services online. We’ll know the findings later in the summer.
For now if you are considering an online divorce, make sure you know what you’re getting into before you click ‘BUY’.
Media information: Lianne Tracey and Chloe Kendall
Stephensons Solicitors LLP
Tel: 01942 774225 or 01942 774054