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Managing Family Law Client Expectations (And Those Of Former Partners) In These Days Of Court Cutbacks
These days we are constantly asked why it takes so long to progress people’s cases when they expect their divorce or financial consent order, once applied for, to move forward relatively quickly.
 
The court system is, frankly, in melt down. Telephone enquiries which were once handled by courts are now dealt with by centralised call centres where the call handlers do not have access to the physical court file. If they cannot see notes on the computer system, they have to contact the court to ask for the file to be examined. This takes days.
 
Here are some recent examples of the delays we have been experiencing:
 
  • One court recently advised one of our family team members that it is taking 38 days to deal with correspondence, even where marked urgent.
  • Another court failed to send out a sealed order from November until after repeated requests it was received around 2 months later.
  • An order on another case is awaited from mid-March despite the court being chased.
  • Acknowledgments of service of petition are taking weeks if not months to receive from the court, so even progressing a straightforward undefended divorce to decree nisi takes far longer than it used to or should.
  • Changes to addresses for service are not being made consistently, meaning that some documents are being sent to the wrong place.
  • One application for decree nisi was sent to a judge in mid-March and has not been heard of since.
  • Documents have been lost by courts and have had to be re-filed.
  • Other documents requiring further information have sat at court without the request for further information being made of us.
 
All in all, this broken system seems to be getting worse not better. The Law Society Gazette reported in February 2019 that the Bury St Edmunds Centre for divorce (which is the centre that deals with divorce and financial consent orders in London and the South-East) had unprecedented delays in 2018. They reported that Her Majesty’s Court & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) had told them the number of staff had increased  since the beginning of 2019, however, in our experience this has not yet had any positive effect.
 
Such delays can be disastrous where urgent attention is needed and clients’ interests can be prejudiced severely. Where action needs to be taken before a sealed order is received, for example where a third party needs to receive a copy of an order in order to provide an expert report, further delays can result. And, perhaps worst for many clients, their costs end up being increased because of the need to chase the courts and/or explain the delays to them and/or the opposing party.
 
It is notable that the difficulties are attracting judicial attention. For example, Sir James Munby, formerly the President of the Family Division of the High Court, stated in his judgment on 17 April 2017 in Baron & Others (4 Defective Divorces) [2019] EWFC 26:
 
It is, unhappily, notorious that some Regional Divorce Units have become bywords for delay and inefficiency, essentially because HMCTS has been unable or unwilling to furnish them with adequate numbers of staff and judges. What is revealed by two of the three cases that were handled by Regional Divorce Units are other failings which I cannot help thinking may have been due, at least in part, to the same underlying problem: people under pressure if there are not enough people engaged to do the work are more prone to make error. The sooner the entire process of divorce is made digital from beginning to end the better.
 
In the end, without a significant injection of funds and staff into the court system, we can only say that everyone involved, whether clients or lawyers, will have to exercise extreme patience when dealing with the courts. Take a deep breath….