None of us need reminding of the lockdowns, restrictions and ways the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our lives, but in this article, Senior Associate Solicitor, Karen Andrews looks at how Family Law reacted, and what now need to be considered to restore balance for long-lasting, successful outcomes.
It feels like a lifetime ago, and to some a bad dream. The rules of social distancing, the restrictions placed on our movements and the ways we had to adapt to ensure that (as far as possible) the ‘wheels kept turning’. However, the fact that we faced new challenges did not mean that the usual problems went away. Marriages and civil partnerships were put under increased pressure and many unfortunately failed.
An online divorce/dissolution system had been introduced in May 2018, enabling applications to be issued via a website without going to Court, with the aim to cut costs and speed up the process. With Court buildings temporarily closed during lockdown this online system proved very useful.
Many parties whose incomes were stretched were invited to access often unregulated ‘alternative’ providers of legal services, ie firms online that offered to obtain “quickie divorces” for them, handling the applications from start to finish and often charging less than a solicitor instructed in the usual way. However, as is often the case, all that glitters is not gold.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been reviewing the rise in “quickie divorces” and has identified potential risks to parties engaging in that process, and potential breaches of consumer protection law. They identified the following main areas of concern:
- lack of clarity regarding the legal process and the costs being charged by the alternative providers, leaving parties uncertain precisely what they were paying for and what (if any) assistance was available to them;
- poor quality service, with examples including the submission of the wrong forms, ‘sloppy’ drafting and late submission of paperwork – also poor levels of communication; and
- consequences to parties if the alternative providers ceased operating during their case, leading to wasted costs and documentation potentially being lost.
When a relationship is struggling, the parties’ problems may be compounded by fears over legal procedures and the costs involved. A cheap alternative may seem like a lifeline at the time, but arranging an initial meeting with a solicitor at an early stage is often still the better way forward.
Why? Rather than simply filling out a form online, each party will have an opportunity to discuss their personal situation with someone qualified to listen and advise. They will be able to raise any particular concerns and receive advice regarding procedure and potential options.
Obtaining a divorce/dissolving your civil partnership but does not automatically sever your financial ties with your ex-partner - you will actually remain financially linked (and maybe even liable for debts) unless/until you obtain a Court Order recording terms of settlement. This is another area where an experienced solicitor can advise and assist you.
The CMA report shows that alternative providers do not generally offer any financial advice, and so even after a “quickie divorce”, parties are still left financially vulnerable, with many (very important) issues still unresolved and very messy finances.