Online divorce, sharia law and divorce reform: The last week in family law

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (‘HMCTS’) and the Ministry of Justice have announced that a fully online divorce application process is being tested across England and Wales for the first time. Launched last year, the pilot scheme initially allowed people seeking a divorce to use an online system which offered prompts and guidance to assist them in completing their application. They would then print off the form and send it to the court. In January HMCTS extended the service so that the application is now fully digital – submitting the form, sending the relevant documents, and payment. It says that in the first week 130 online applications were received. Susan Acland-Hood, CEO of HMCTS, said: “We are investing over £1 billion to reform and modernise the justice system. These measures are drastically cutting the number of applications returned because of errors – streamlining the process and ensuring we are best supporting people going through a difficult and often painful time.” The next stages in the pilot will include making the system available for use by legal representatives.

A Russian billionaire who was ordered to pay £453m to his former wife has been named as Farkhad Akhmedov. An order had prevented the couple’s identification after Akhmedov’s former wife Tatiana Akhmedova requested anonymity because of fears for her safety. However details of the couple were revealed last week in the Court of Appeal, where Akhmedov is appealing against the divorce settlement. His lawyers claimed the settlement, awarded by Mr Justice Haddon Cave in 2016, showed “manifestly unjust” favouritism towards Akhmedova by the British courts. Meanwhile, the court in heard that Akhmedova had not received “a penny” of the settlement, which required Akhmedov to give his ex-wife 41.5% of his “staggering” wealth.  Akhmedov is a gas and oil tycoon, and close friends with Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club. The couple, who were married more than 20 years ago, moved to London in 1993 and lived in a £39m mansion in Surrey.

A review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales launched in 2016 by the then Home Secretary Theresa May has published its report. The review, which was ordered primarily because of concerns that some sharia councils were discriminating against women who use their services on matters of marriage and divorce, made three recommendations for reform. Firstly, it recommended that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage ceremony, so that all Islamic wives, some of whom do not civilly register their marriage, have the protection of the law of England and Wales. Secondly, it recommended that awareness campaigns, educational programmes and other similar measures be put in place to educate and inform women of their rights and responsibilities. Thirdly, it recommended the introduction of regulation of sharia councils. However, the Home Office has indicated that it would not be taking forward this recommendation, saying: “Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws.”

A judge has described a divorce battle between a couple who have spent almost £2 million of their total assets of £6.6 million on lawyers’ fees as a “scandalous waste of court time”. Mr Justice Holman said that Barbara Cooke and Michael Parker, who run a firm that supplies luxury bathrobes and towels to upmarket hotels and spas, had “completely lost touch with reality”. His comments were made at a pre-trial hearing. Estimating that about another £200,000 would be spent on lawyers if the case went to trial, he urged the couple to settle the matter by agreement, saying: “This whole case is a scandalous waste of court time. Sometimes one can see cases where people are just absolutely determined to go on and on and on. I don’t know on which side the fault lies but this seems to be that sort of case.”

And finally, The Times has reported that the Justice Secretary David Gauke “has agreed to examine the case for reforming divorce laws that force couples into damaging and false allegations of blame.” He said: “I know The Times has campaigned vigorously for reform of family law, including fault-based divorce, and a number of respected figures have voiced their support for change. I acknowledge the strength of feeling on this issue and will study the evidence for change.” However he added that he would not “rush to a conclusion”.