‘Quick, easy online divorces’ – should you be alarmed?

When Lord Palmerston pushed the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 through Parliament, resisting substantial opposition, he probably never envisaged a time when getting a divorce would involve no more than handing over £37 and filling in a quick online form. Prior to his bill, divorce had really only been possible via the granting of a parliamentary statute or on very narrow grounds within Church Law, and which of course, was really only accessible to the wealthy. The legislation was a leap forward into the modern era, though there were those who felt it undermined the Church of England notably William Gladstone. But there were others who felt the time had come to remove the power the Church of England had over divorce, and a campaign led by Caroline Norton, a victim of domestic violence, forced to remain married to her husband, George, led, ultimately, to this substantial change in the landscape of marriage.

There was of course, a long way to go in terms of bringing about equality for women before the law in matrimonial affairs, and much water would pass under the legal bridge, before the 1969 Divorce Reform Act would remove the necessity for blame in divorce cases and permit divorce for reasons of the marriage being ‘irretrievably broken down’. Even then, it took case law in the form of White v White and Petrodel v Prest to ensure that the different roles a husband and wife may play within a marriage are given equal value in terms of the separation of assets following divorce.

So from a handful of divorce cases in the first year of the 1857 Act’s operation (300) to the now 120,000 divorces that take place in this country annually, divorce law in the UK has journeyed a long way. 42% of marriages now end in divorce, and marriage it seems, has become a minority sport. And now, as legal aid in divorce cases came to an end in April of this year, a whole new way of approaching divorce is upon us. New ‘divorce products’ are on the market, from fixed-fee structures and DIY divorce packs to the proliferation of online divorce services that even the progressive Palmerston would have found so hard to envisage.

But is this all for the greater good? There are reasons to be alarmed about the promises of quick, easy divorces that such sites claim to be able to furnish you with. A recent piece by Graham Coy argued that family law firms do their client base an injustice by allowing them to drift away to online providers without first questioning the professionalism of such companies. One google search of the term ‘online divorce’ brings up a plethora of both companies offering their services, as well as a number of sites who review the quality of their work. The online advisory service All About Divorce offers a simple list of the pros and cons of using online providers, but it is, perhaps, worth quoting Graham’s article at length here. Speaking on behalf of family lawyers he argues:

“If, as a profession, we stand back and do nothing [about these services] we will be letting ourselves down. More importantly, we will be letting the public down, especially those who may be seduced into believing that all a divorce entails is a simple matter of filling in an online form and paying a modest fee. We also need to ensure that the public are aware of what we, as lawyers and in particular as family lawyers, have to offer….We need to emphasise that we are able to recognise that each case is different and requires its own individual solution…. With the withdrawal of legal aid and at a time when the court service is facing virtual meltdown, there has never been a more important time for solicitors to ensure that they offer divorcing and separating couples the best possible service, and exert whatever pressure is necessary to ensure that other would-be providers of legal services are also required to meet those high standards.”

Here at Prince Family Law we can’t help thinking that Graham Coy makes a strong point here. We understand that family budgets are as tight as they have ever been, and that the costs of divorcing are not modest. While it is not for us to embroil ourselves in politico-moral arguments about the ease with which divorce can now be obtained , we do want to make sure that those about to embark on this complex process are in possession of all of the facts. If you’d like to talk to us about your divorce, why not start by surveying our services here and then getting in touch.