There is a distinct feeling, shared among many divorce lawyers, lawmakers, religious organisations and indeed general members of the public, that the introduction of "digital divorce" would somehow trivialise the vows and institution of marriage.
It is easy to understand this point of view, to believe that to make divorce cheaper, more accessible and, ultimately, more attainable would only serve to undermine one of society's most traditional and sanctified of contracts. In short, they suggest, it would represent little more than another lurch down the slippery slope to eventual social Armageddon.
However, it is easy to wonder whether such a view might be missing the point and indeed whether it might actually be either disingenuous or dissonant to the state of society to believe so.
After all, like it or not we are already living in digital Britain. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau UK (IAB) and UK Online Measurement Company (UKOM) the average Brit spends close to three hours a day online, and given that this figure hails from 2015 it is entirely reasonable to speculate that we might now have exceeded this three-hour mark. Our lives are already digital.
But even this does not tell the full story. In July 2016 online statistics specialist Online Brain reported that over the previous 12 months 17% of marriages were between parties who had met on an online dating site, while, in addition, 20% of people in committed relationships had met this way.
Clearly, if people are coming to together online, they should be able to go their separate ways with the assistance of the same technology – to suggest otherwise might risk seeming obstinate and outmoded. Virtual space is part of our lives, so why make divorce separate? However, until you can get married online, it could be argued that to divorce online is an encroachment. There still needs to be some element of 'real' interaction.
So, if we are to move headlong into giving separating parties the reality of digital divorce we need to first considering its make-up and its impact.
Given the proliferation of "online divorce" providers one could be forgiven for thinking that digital divorce is already here. It's frankly astonishing just how many companies there are optimising their websites for "cheap divorce", "easy divorce" and "online divorce", with the "£37 divorce" perhaps the cheapest advertised example you could find.
But these "quickie" divorce providers are not exactly what the Ministry of Justice had it mind when it published its paper, "Transforming our Justice System", with an undertaking to reduce the stress and protraction from the divorce process by putting "as much as possible of it online".
In fact, the more than 300 people a day who apply for divorce in Britain would definitely benefit from greater transparency and awareness regarding the kinds of fees they have to pay in addition to the £37 "quickie" charge: £410 for filing a divorce petition and a further £45 for the decree absolute. Of course, none of this covers the cost and legal expertise required to satisfactorily resolve financial and/or child care arrangements.
The truth is that just like "quickie divorce", the government's promised "digital divorce" might sound appealing but as always the devil is in the detail and the unfortunate reality is that we're still short on that vital ingredient.
This revelation comes as a result of the work of family law solicitor Tony Roe, whose Freedom of Information requests to the MoJ have provided us with the news that the long-heralded trial of a system for "removing some of the bureaucracy from often stressful and lengthy proceedings and simplifying cumbersome administrative processes" is so far not yet ready even for the pilot stage, and this despite the MoJ saying it would be coming "very soon".
It seems that even having the support of Britain's most senior family judge, Sir James Munby, is not enough to give the long-hoped for system of paperless divorce the momentum it needs to get confidently off the ground. Indeed, Her Majesty' Court Service is still remaining non-committal about when any properly evolved and tested online system might be made available to the end user.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that any introduction of paperless divorce will also immediately herald the beginning of a "no fault" divorce system.
Just this week a spokesperson with the MoJ told The Law Society Gazette that there are still no plans to change the law. So, as it is, grown adults who have soberly reached the decision that they wish to separate, often because they mutually agree that things simply aren't working out, will continue to have to go through the farce of citing fault in the event that they have been married for less than two years. It is, of course, a ridiculous situation and it is disingenuous on the part of lawmakers to persist with the requirement of fault. Let's hope that the introduction of digital divorce can help usher in a new era of honesty regarding divorce. It's long overdue.
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