There is no such thing as a quickie divorce

The competition watchdog has announced an investigation into businesses that offer legal services, such as online divorces and will writing. The Competition & Markets Authority has announced that it will consider whether these businesses are complying with consumer protection law, particularly amongst unregulated providers.

The unregulated providers of these services are not solicitors. Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and are bound by its rules. They have to comply with the SRA’s requirements for training and continuing professional development to ensure that they are competent. They must have professional indemnity insurance in case things go wrong. Unregulated providers often advertise themselves by saying that “no solicitors are involved”. People who are understandably worried about incurring high legal fees may choose to use them, and therefore may be running a risk that the service they receive is insufficient.

The media reports about this refer to “quickie divorce” providers. To real lawyers, i.e. solicitors, barristers, legal executives and so on, and who, to be honest, are professional nitpickers at heart, the expression “quickie divorce” sets our teeth on edge, for the simple reason that there is no such thing in England and Wales as a quickie divorce.

All divorces potentially take the same time to run their course (part from divorces in exceptional circumstances, such as the imminent death of one spouse, where the court has limited powers to accelerate the process). The vast, vast majority of divorces will potentially take the same amount of time. This can be anywhere from about 8 months (which appears to be the minimum period in which it is possible to obtain a divorce under the new no-fault divorce system introduced in 2022) to several years, depending on the circumstances of the case. Where there are financial issues to be sorted out, I would usually estimate that it takes between 8 and 18 months, possibly longer. Some cases will take longer than others due to financial disputes, but all divorces have the same potential length of time. The same procedure is used for all cases. There is no accelerated procedure for people who want a “quickie divorce”.

Quickie divorce is one of those weird expressions that only the media use, like “love rat”, “sex romp”, “mistress” or “boffin”.  I think it probably started to be used when the divorce laws were reformed in the 1960’s making it easier for people to get divorced. People could either divorce immediately citing behaviour or adultery, or could wait at least two years and have a divorce by citing two years’ separation with the other side’s consent or five years without it. However, that is not what a quickie divorce is. Quickie divorces are an American concept. People who might have had to wait a long time, or who might not be able to divorce at all, would travel to Nevada where divorces took place relatively quickly and would get divorce there. The old English and Welsh systems of fault based divorce or divorce after a minimum period of separation no longer exists and has been replaced by a no-fault system.

Some online divorce providers are reputable and provide an acceptable quality of service. However, there is concern that not all do. I would be wary of some of the claims made by online divorce providers. For example, I have seen one provider whose website claims that it can conclude a divorce within 26 weeks. This period has been calculated by taking the 20 week “cooling off” period between the divorce application being issued by the court and being able to apply for a conditional order. There is then a further 6 week period before the application can be made for the final order bringing the marriage legally to an end. Ergo, 26 weeks.

However, this fails to understand the delays in the system caused by bureaucratic inertia. Once the application is submitted to the court via the myHMCTS online portal, it currently takes the court about 2 weeks to issue the application and to send it to the respondent (or to the applicants in a joint application). Only then does the 20 week cooling off period start to run.

Once the cooling off period is up (22 weeks after submitting the application), if the application for the conditional order is made without delay, it currently takes the court about 2 weeks for the court legal adviser to review the application and to check that everything is in order and to then issue a certificate of entitlement. The certificate notifies the parties of the date on which the court will pronounce the condition order (which nowadays always happens at the Family Court at Birmingham, usually about 2 weeks later. This beings then time up to 26 weeks.

6 weeks later, the applicant or joint applicants can apply for the final order, which is usually made within 24 hours (unless the respondent or one joint applicant puts a spanner in the works by submitting an application under section 10 (2) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 for the court to consider the parties’ financial circumstances after the divorce, thereby putting a hold on the making of the final order until financial issues have been sorted out. Assuming that doesn’t happen, the divorce has now taken 32 weeks, not 26.

Furthermore, solicitors usually advise their clients to delay applying for the final order until the financial issues have been resolved and the court has made a financial order, largely for reasons due to pensions. If the financial order contains a pension sharing order, it is good practice to delay the application for the final order until 28 days after the pension sharing order is made. (See my blog here about this). I would worry about legally unqualified  and unregulated providers would be aware of the importance of that. It doesn’t look like good value for money to me.

5 August 2023

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