January is a difficult time for relationships as unfortunately this is the most common month in which unhappy couples decide to divorce.Before the pan
January is a difficult time for relationships as unfortunately this is the most common month in which unhappy couples decide to divorce.
Before the pandemic, tricky divorces were typically fought out in court and meetings with legal representatives conducted face-to-face.
But lockdown restrictions have resulted in thousands of divorces being conducted through virtual meetings with mediators and through digital court proceedings.
Instead of being a hindrance, this forced technical transformation in divorce has offered many unexpected advantages and saved considerable amounts of money and heartache, say experts.
Before the pandemic, divorces and mediations were typically done face to face. But the rise of Zoom divorces has changed all of this and saved couples time and money
Edward Cooke of law firm Edward Cooke Family Law – who also sits on the national committee at Resolution, an organisation that represents nearly 7,000 law professionals – says: ‘Online dispute resolution has proved to be very successful at reducing conflict, enabling couples to reach an agreement more quickly and, as a result, reducing legal costs.
‘A digital divorce has actually worked far better for many separating couples than traditional, face-to-face approaches.’
He believes the digital divorces have been so successful that he’s convinced they will endure beyond the pandemic.
He says: ‘We’re learning that while ‘divorce by Zoom’ isn’t right for everyone or suited to every case, it is an approach that can offer real benefits for many people.’
Digital divorces help save couples money
What is online mediation?
Mediation is a process in which couples seek to reach a divorce or separation agreement through several meetings with a neutral mediator.
The mediator can be a legal specialist, such as a lawyer, or a psychologist who specialises in mediation may also be selected – especially if there are children involved.
The sessions are conducted online through video communications tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype.
Couples can choose to seek legal advice from their respective solicitors alongside the mediation process.
Hybrid mediations are also on the rise. This is where couples meet a mediator with their chosen lawyers present across a number of meetings.
Edward Cooke of law firm Edward Cooke Family Law says: ‘Hybrid mediations occur in cases where there is a higher level of conflict. The mediator can see the couple separately or together and as such there is flexibility to suit the situation.’
If a couple is able to agree on the terms of a divorce through online mediation, their legal bill is likely to be much less than going through court proceedings.
A report by Aviva ‘The Hidden Cost of Divorce and Separation’, puts the average cost of divorce at a whopping £14,561, but it’s not unheard of for some costs to escalate up to £50,000 in legal fees – especially if they are complicated and battled out in court, according to Cooke.
Cooke says: ‘The average cost of a UK divorce has been reported to be nearly £15,000 in terms of legal fees and other costs – more complex cases can cost considerably more than this.
‘In contrast, it is not uncommon for mediation to take between three to five sessions of an hour or so, meaning the mediation process could end up costing only £2,000 to £3,000.’
Daniel Eames, partner at Mitchelmores and chair of Resolution’s international committee adds that time wastage is also reduced.
He says: ‘There’s no more time wasted sitting around in court waiting rooms and clients no longer pay us for that.
‘Lawyers can now work on their computer on other matters waiting for the email link to attend the digital court hearing.’
Costs are also lowered with couples’ ability to choose a mediator or solicitor anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Cooke points out that for couples living in major cities like London the costs can be quite high with sessions per hour ranging from £250 to £700.
He says: ‘You can be in central London and employ someone in Sussex and get charged lower fees.’
He adds that complex cases that are conducted online could range between £3,000 and £5,000 but points out: ‘But that’s still a fraction of a cost where court battles could cost around £40,000.’
They can also reduce conflict
Virtual sessions mean couples don’t have to be in the same room. If things get too heated virtual break out rooms can be used for restoring calm.
Cooke says: ‘Zoom gives people who don’t want to sit together the opportunity to have some space. For example, in cases involving couples that may struggle to control their emotions or where one person may feel uncomfortable being in the room physically with the other person, video mediation can actually be better.
‘I have seen quite a number of couples successfully resolve disputes via Zoom, particularly in high-conflict scenarios, where it might conceivably have been more difficult to resolve matters in an environment where they were actually sitting in a room together.’
Edward Cooke, of law firm Edward Cooke Family Law, says Zoom divorces can cost a fraction of face to face proceedings which can go up to as much as £40,000
Easier meetings and no travelling
Meetings can be set up easily, at short notice and without the need to commute long distances for a face-to-face session.
Cooke explains: ‘We are seeing many more couples who are able to use our mediation services online who might otherwise have struggled to make meetings with us.’
Court proceedings have also been conducted online so couples no longer need to commute to courts to settle their divorces.
Cooke adds: ‘In cases involving straightforward issues, particularly for procedural hearings where directions are being made to progress matters, there really ought to be no need going forward for lawyers and clients to travel long distances for short court hearings, which can very often be handled online via video or phone.
‘I would anticipate that even when things go back to some sort of normality after the pandemic, online court hearings, certainly for these sorts of hearings should become the norm.’
Should I cut a lawyer out entirely?
With the possibility of doing everything digitally, some may feel tempted to cut out consulting a divorce lawyer altogether. The petitioner (the person who applies for the divorce) just has to pay a £550 court fee, and don’t need legal representation to apply for a divorce.
But Fiona Turner, family law expert and partner at Weightmans LLP warns against deciding this in the heat of the moment.
Fiona Turner, family law expert and Partner at Weightmans LLP, argues it’s always better to seek legal advice before divorcing
‘The availability of digital divorces can tempt people to move too quickly. Petitioners can apply for a digital divorce at any time day or night, perhaps after a heated row with their partner or too much to drink, instead of having to wait until normal business hours.
‘It is always better to take legal advice before issuing a divorce. For example, it is not obvious on an online application that couples need an additional financial order to formalise their financial settlement.’
Fewer delays and quicker settlements
Tricky pre-pandemic divorces usually took up to a year or longer to settle but thanks to a new online portal by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service divorces can now take as little as 12 weeks to resolve.
The portal helps to reduce the time and paperwork needed to finalise divorces. Cooke explains: ‘Until the introduction of the portal, it had been necessary to file divorce petitions at a regional divorce centre.
‘The delays at those centres have, and remain, horrendous – it has not been uncommon to wait three months for a routine piece of correspondence relating to a divorce to be processed, and for the whole divorce process to take as long as 18 months.
Daniel Eames, partner at Mitchelmores, says digital court proceedings have worked quite well but that the future could see a ‘hybrid approach’ particularly in domestic abuse cases
‘On the whole, the online portal is working extremely smoothly and there are simply not the delays and administrative issues that have dogged the paper-based system. We have clients who have seen their divorces processed in as little as three to four months.’
However, Eames warns that some financial dispute resolutions may still take longer.
He explains: ‘What used to happen is that you’d have a session in the morning and judge would come back and give an indication and you’d be in court for the day.
‘If you’re all in the same place and discussions are going on often resolutions are achieved that way in a day. But if it’s done remotely and people don’t like what the judge says they withdraw and the conflict continues. So in future this part may still be better to be done in person.’
Is online mediation right for me?
While digital divorces have proven revolutionary, Cooke admits that not all cases can be settled in this way.
He says: ‘When I first started, I was skeptical about online mediation and how it would work.
‘But the professions has been revolutionised by the pandemic and I think it’s here to stay. People can dial in from home or work.
‘But it will be question of personal choice. Some will prefer the easy access of online engagement and others will prefer face to face as you don’t get to pick up non-verbal cues online, especially with children.’
Eames adds there could still be a hybrid approach, particularly when it comes to domestic abuse cases.
He says: ‘None-verbal cues are harder to see. Part of the skill of cross examination is being able to see whether people are telling the truth. This is all based on what they are doing and where they are looking. It’s all about the dynamic in the room and body language. But this can be lost if you’re not present in court.’
Why digital divorces aren’t a new concept
Digital court proceedings may be a new way of doing things during lockdown but when it comes to the paperwork the government have long intended to make this a digital process.
Two years ago, the government spent £1billion to introduce an online service with prompts and guidance to assist people in completing their divorce application.
The entire process could be conducted online, including payment and uploading of supporting evidence.
During the testing phase, more than 1,000 petitions were conducted through the new system with 91 per cent of users saying they were satisfied with the service.
The new system also saves time for court staff who typically spent 13,000 hours dealing with complex divorce forms. People also make fewer mistakes using this digital process. According to the government, there was a 95 per cent of forms being returned due to mistakes compared with paper forms.