Divorce centres: Further progress report on Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre – Law Society Family Section Seminar
We have now reached first anniversary of the Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre (BSE).
In the wake of that, Resolution has stated that divorce centres are, in the words of its chair, Nigel Shepherd, 'under significant strain', suggesting that the number of divorce petitions has far exceeded the levels that were anticipated or planned for.
So what are the figures for BSE, the single divorce centre for the London and the South East? Last month (21 June) the Law Society Family Section, followed up the seminar it ran last summer on centralisation of divorce. 'Divorce centres a year on', brought together a panel drawn from the judiciary and senior civil servants from the court service (HMCTS) involved in the running of centralised divorce, together with family law practitioners, to discuss the process and how it will be further developed. It was chaired by Karen Dovaston, deputy head of family law department and family law arbitrator, Jeffries Solicitors, and a member of the section’s Advisory Group.
Family law solicitor and arbitrator, Tony Roe, who made a series of FoI requests of the MoJ, and whose research broke the news that Bury St Edmunds (BSE) would be the single divorce centre for the London and the South East, was on the seminar panel. Roe said, 'HMCTS had set an ambitious target of BSE dealing with over 40 per cent of divorce work in England and Wales once the centre was fully operational. It seems that this is being fulfilled as BSE is heading for between 40,000 and 45,000 petitions being issued in a twelve month period'.
'We discovered that:
BSE receives broadly 1,200 items of post a day,
including 250 – 300 petitions (including any those which need to be returned for the reasons it has given below;
along with 150 emails;
Previously, up to 50% of petitions were being returned. This has now dropped to 30% to 40%. This still represents between 13,000 and 18,000 per year, reasons below.
By early 2016, BSE had reached the point of a 48 hour turnaround in administrative work. However, a positive media article about BSE caused a surge in its popularity as the divorce centre of choice and a huge influx of petitions, meaning that staff were unable to keep pace with incoming work'.
'BSE apparently receives a vast amount of calls each day, 700. I have asked whether, specific case queries aside, key generic queries could be collated so that practitioners could access certain key information without making a call.
'Already, there is some helpful information in an “on demand” bulletin on its email account, BuryStEdmundsInformation@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk. The bulletin shows the work position at the Divorce Centre and provides general information to assist practitioners. This is intended to enable solicitors and others to assess when work sent to the Divorce Centre will be processed and reduce the need to telephone or write for progress updates, saving time and providing information to keep clients informed. Work information is updated daily at 12 noon'.
'So, for example, on 1 July, the auto-response stated that BSE was processing petitions received on 30 June 2016 and all other work received on 8 June with the exception of emails and correspondence, with the judiciary processing applications for directions for trial which received on 10 June.'
'It was acknowledged that, for example, on occasion, requests for solicitor service have been missed. One suggestion was that solicitors should highlight embolden and use coloured flags for key instructions in their letters where such service is sought'.
'The message given at the event was that the more that practitioners and the divorce centres can work together, the better it will be for all, particularly our clients. Should any errors be made by staff at the centres, or indeed in local county courts dealing with contested proceeding, we should flag these up so that they do not recur'.
A further article by Karen Dovaston will appear in the August issue of Family Law.