Click, swipe, dump: Welcome to the age of online divorce
“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part…”
When couples utter those words, it’s unlikely they’re contemplating divorce, let alone thinking about applying for one online. Last month, as part of a £1bn modernisation programme, the UK’s Ministry of Justice rolled out digital divorce across England and Wales, meaning that couples can now apply for a divorce from the comfort of their living room.
That’s right. The whole process is done with a few clicks on a screen, including payment and uploading of supporting evidence. For those who struggle to complete their tax returns online, the prospect of a DIY digital divorce might be daunting. But, rather promisingly, of the 1,000+ petitions that were issued through the new system during the testing phase, 91% of people said they were satisfied with the service.
“It was marvellous, pain-free and less stressful than the paper form which I tried several years ago to complete but got fed up of it being rejected,” Elaine Everett, who was separated for more than two years before applying for her divorce (which she has now received), told the Ministry of Justice.
In fact, by eschewing the legal jargon of the paper divorce forms, the simplified online service has led to a 95% drop in the number of applications being returned to their senders because of mistakes. And when you consider that court staff currently spend an estimated 13,000 hours dealing with complex divorce paperwork, this stands to be a huge cost-saver for our overstretched courts.
“Allowing divorce applications to be made online will help make sure we are best supporting people going through an often difficult and painful time,” said justice minister Lucy Frazer at the launch of the service. “More people will have the option of moving from paper-based processes to online systems which will cut waste, speed up services which can be safely expedited, and otherwise better fit with modern day life.”
Legal separation at your fingertips
But should something as serious as divorce be completed on your iPad while sitting on the sofa watching Love Island? In our world of instant gratification, where we can get everything from sex to food at the touch of a smartphone, might bringing the divorce process online make it seem more…trivial?
“A sense that a divorce is just a click away”
“I don’t think this is inevitable, but it certainly is possible,” explains Dr Sam Carr, director of studies for education with psychology at the University of Bath. “The convenience, ease, and at-your-fingertips nature of the digital world does have the potential to encourage and foster a sense that a divorce is ‘just a click away’.
“Couples might pull out of marriages much more easily and quickly than they otherwise would. This could be good – but it could also be bad in the sense that if we simply have to click our fingers to end our marriages, then how can we learn about, appreciate, understand, and grow from the trials and tribulations that all marriages inevitably have to face from time to time?
Indeed, it goes without saying that the emotional cost of divorce should be carefully considered. Barrister John Oxley, who works for law firm Vardags, is not convinced that digital divorces will lead to unhappy couples rushing to end their marriages. “Not at all. No one is dissuaded from ending their marriage because the form is difficult – they are simply inconvenienced whilst doing it. I also hope that this change helps pave the way towards no-fault divorce, as the overwhelming evidence shows our fault-based system is both unpopular and counter-productive, engendering heartache rather than protecting marriage.
“It is also worth remembering that this system does not do away with the litigation which surrounds the ending of the marriage. Financial issues and child arrangements, where the real complications lie, will still be handled by the courts in the usual way.”
Access and support
The idea of instigating divorce proceedings online isn’t new, as Kate Daly, who co-founded divorce app Amicable in 2016, will attest. Several online services already offer divorces, but Amicable’s USP (claims its co-founders) is that it contains all the necessary legal information as well as the emotional support required to make the procedure as smooth as possible. Luckily for Daly’s business, the MoJ’s digital scheme is built using an open API which means she can let her customers access the forms through her app’s interface.
“A simpler system will promote access to justice”
Speaking to Courier magazine about the digital divorce launch, Daly was enthused: “I think [adoption] will take an age in reality but any digitisation can’t come soon enough. A simpler system will promote access to justice.”
Access being the crucial word here. For many, the process of divorce can become – quite literally – an obstacle course. Rebecca, who did not want her last name to be used, received legal confirmation of her divorce 11.5 weeks after submitting her application. “The service was a lot easier because I use a wheelchair and didn’t have to go out, and I also found it very easy as an autistic person to get support from the team when I had questions,” said Rebecca. The paper process would have taken around six months.
Nowadays, considering the number of relationships that began with two people swiping right, sliding into someone’s DM, or ‘liking’ a picture on Instagram, it does seem only natural that the end of a marriage could also take place on screen. Speaking at a lecture earlier this year, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, said: “The online divorce pilot has been a triumphant success and shows, to my mind conclusively, that this is – must be the way of the future.”