The Government hopes that the online system will make the process less stressful for users during an already difficult time, as well as decreasing the amount of time some people spend on the dissolution of their marriage, allowing them to focus on getting their lives back on track.
The scheme was initially piloted last year, allowing users to apply online for a divorce. The system offered guidance in completing the application form, whilst also enabling users to print off the documents and send to the appropriate court.
HMCTS has since further extended the service to include submitting forms online so that the process is now fully digital, which enables users to send relevant documents and even allows payments to be made via their website. It is reported that, in the first week of the pilot launching, they received over 130 online applications.
The Government hopes that the system will reduce the number of applications returned due to errors and generally enabling the process to be much smoother for people at a difficult time in their lives. Since the pilot launched, there has been a 90% improvement in errors received on paper versions of the application. The process also removes the risk of the application being lost in the post, as well as the details being recorded instantly online. This pilot is part of the Government’s £1bn plans to modernise the justice system.
The pilot thus far has received positive feedback from users when compared to the current paper-based application form; the next stage of the pilot is to allow legal advisers to use the system which shall hopefully continue to streamline the divorce application process for people across England and Wales.
In the case of Hart v Hart, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC awarded Karen Hart just £3.5m out of the total assets amounting to just under £9.4m in a financial remedy order made in June 2015. This unusual ruling wasn’t as a result of a ‘short, sharp’ marriage as documented previously, as the couple’s marriage spanned 23 years.
Karen Hart’s solicitor said the settlement 'should have been based on an equal sharing of the assets they created between them during this time', and the recent ruling 'leaves the law in a state of flux. It allows a trial judge to find that even where it is not properly evidenced, the financial contribution of one spouse outweighs the family and domestic contribution of the other. This can lead to a result that is unfair and discriminatory, as it has done in this case. More such results are likely to follow, with the potential to set the law back more than 20 years'.
Regardless of whether this latest ruling will indeed set a precedent for financial remedy cases moving forward, it will no doubt make couples who are looking to wed in the near future think about their financial assets, and how best to allocate them should the worst occur by drafting up a prenuptial agreement.
Mrs Owens originally petitioned for divorce against her husband of 37 years on the basis of his unreasonable behaviour. Under the law in England and Wales, a petition on this basis is one of only two ways separating couples can commence divorce proceedings immediately. Mr Owens defended the proceedings which in itself is somewhat unusual.
Multiple court hearings have since followed and the court have found, to date, that the examples of unreasonable behaviour Mrs Owens included within her divorce petition are not enough to satisfy the threshold, trapping her in what she calls “a loveless marriage”. The Court of Appeal found that "Parliament has decreed that it is not a ground for divorce that you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage, though some people may say it should be."
There is current debate surrounding whether there should be legislation to allow separating couples to divorce immediately on a ‘no fault basis’. The idea is that this would enable couples to engage in the divorce process on a more amicable, less confrontational basis and would hopefully avoid the type of litigation Mr & Mrs Owens have had to endure.
The case demonstrates that it is vital to seek legal advice at the outset of separation to ensure that unnecessary, costly and stressful litigation can be avoided.
Mr and Mrs Sharp were married for four years. They had no children together and both worked full-time earning approximately £100,000 per year each. Mrs Sharp, however, did receive significant bonuses amounting to over £10 million during the marriage. Throughout the course of their marriage, the couple kept their finances separate, although they did purchase property together and shared in the costs of acquiring and refurbishing those properties.
Upon Mrs Sharp finding out Mr Sharp was having an affair in 2013, she issued divorce proceedings and the financial elements of those proceedings were initially determined by the court in November 2015. The Judge decided that Mr Sharp was entitled to exactly half of the matrimonial pot, which amounted to £2.75 million. This decision was very much in line with the long-established sharing principle upon divorce. Mrs Sharp appealed that decision and argued that the equal sharing of the matrimonial assets, which were mostly built up by her, was unfair.
The Court of Appeal have recently found in Mrs Sharp’s favour and decreased the award to Mr Sharp to £2million, which is less than 50% of the matrimonial pot. This decision is a significant departure from the long-established principle of splitting the matrimonial assets down the middle upon divorce, despite the length of the marriage.
Lord Justice McFarlane, one of the three Appeal Court Judges, found that in this case there was no impediment to depart from the established principle of equal division and he concluded that in a short, dual career marriage in which the couple had kept their finances separate, it was indeed justified.
This decision creates further uncertainty in the law and conflicts with the general principle of an equal split upon divorce. This case concentrates on the fairness of the outcome in the circumstances of this couple’s situation and clearly reflects the position that the courts will not apply an automatic split down the middle in every case and that the couple’s circumstances must be considered in each and every case.
The experiment was initially piloted at a divorce centre in Southampton, and its launch is expected to save family solicitors weeks of delays in future cases. In a letter published this week, family division president Sir James Munby and HM Courts & Tribunals Service deputy chief executive Kevin Sadler said that the pilot had accomplished its purpose of introducing a more streamlined process to divorce proceedings, reducing the delays experienced by court users as files are transferred between courts by up to two weeks.
Presently, if a contested financial application is made by one or both parties, the whole proceedings are transferred to a local court. The pilot in question administratively unlinks financial proceedings from divorce so that the main divorce proceedings remain in the specialist centre, whilst staff and judiciary at the local hearing centres worked separately on the contested financial proceedings. Other matters such as consent applications remained at the divorce centres.
A separate financial remedy file is then created at the local hearing centre, holding the same case number as the divorce proceedings. Many family solicitors are hailing this new approach as more effective and speedy than before.
Family law group Resolution also welcomed the news; they stated “Any steps that reduce delay and make the administration of family proceedings more efficient must be encouraged. This is just one example of how quite simple changes can make a difference in practice”.
The couple in the case have not been named but the full judgment can be reviewed AAZ v BBZ  EWHC 3234 (Fam). They married in 1993 and had two sons. The wife was 17 years younger than the husband and was described to be a housewife and a hands-on mother during their marriage. The husband was a businessman with significant wealth. The husband sold shares for US $1.375 billion during their marriage and at the point of divorce, the wife estimated their marital wealth to be over £1 billion.
The Judge accepted that the total wealth of the family was wholly matrimonial and that it should, therefore, be shared between the husband and wife.
The husband, in this case, seems to have not done himself any favours by failing to attend at court for the various hearings. The husband did, however, rather fittingly given the wealth involved, appear at the final hearing by video-link from his yacht in the Caribbean.
London is well known for being the divorce capital of the world and women from all over the world seek to issue their divorce proceedings in London if they have sufficient links to the country to secure jurisdiction. The reason for this is that the courts in London tend to take a more sympathetic attitude toward housewives or stay at home mothers.
The law provides for a starting point, in line with the sharing principle, in long marriages of a 50/50 split of the matrimonial assets regardless of who earns the most. The court will also give consideration to the standard of living the family has enjoyed throughout the marriage when determining a financial award. This means for a stay at home wife, who has been married to a wealthy businessman for a long while, is likely to receive an award very close to 50% of the entire matrimonial wealth.