FOI MOJ: OMG!

For updates to the Freedom of Information request referred to in this blog post see here and here. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has confirmed that regions are to be responsible for communicating changes to regional users prior to the implementation of divorce centres and that separate divorce centres for London and the South East were considered, but a single centre covering both regions was considered to be the most cost effective option. The MoJ has confirmed that Bury St Edmunds will be the venue for the London and South East divorce centre. HMCTS is to ensure that arrangements are in place for any urgent applications to receive immediate and appropriate attention, if it is not possible for an applicant to make an application at their designated divorce centre. Guidance on urgent applications is to be made available to all courts in due course. Further information regarding the MoJ plans has also been made available via Resolution here together with examples of regional communications.

Maidenhead probably doesn't feature very highly in Italian travel guides to the UK. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice place within a very pleasant riverside setting. The town didn't ask to get into the family law reports, or indeed the wider media generally. When it did it was not for the best of reasons.

Nevertheless, this part of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead managed to feature in the judgment of the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby's recent judgment in Rapsidara v Colladon (Irregular Divorces) [2014] EWFC 35. That case concerned 180 petitions of Italian nationals issued in 137 different courts in England & Wales.179 of the 180 divorcing couples had falsely claimed that one of them lived at an address in Maidenhead.

Munby P was so concerned at this attempt to con the family courts that, within a year, he said, there will be fewer than 20 courts in which divorces can be processed. Of course, back in August last year, in the fifth View from the President's Chambers, he had already said '...consideration is currently being given to the desirability of centralising the handling of divorce cases (as distinct from any related claims for financial remedies).'

Making enquires 

After the 1 October judgment, things went quiet so I decided to try to find out from the MoJ what was planned and when. I made a Freedom of Information request.

As well as asking for details in relation to courts local to my firm on the South Eastern Circuit, I asked for a likely final list of all the courts in England and Wales that will remain able to process divorce petitions following the implementation of any decision concerning this matter.

The MoJ reply stated that when choosing a 'single point of entry', the divorce centre does not have to be the designated family centre and 'operationally it may make sense that a separate venue is chosen to ease workforce pressures...or because divorce work has already been centralised within an area.'

The MoJ also stated that the decisions on which courts/offices will process divorce petitions have already been made by each region of Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) with the exception of the south-east, London and the south-west where decisions were due to be made by the end of November 2014. Despite our request, the MoJ omitted to reveal what the outcomes of the decisions already made were.

Some interesting information was revealed, though. The MoJ said, 'In the south-east region the proposal is that Bury St Edmunds will be the point of entry for divorce petitions. In the South West region the proposal is Southampton. This means that divorce petitions will be processed at those courts/centres unless they require a hearing. Those cases which require a hearing will be transferred to the most suitable local Family Court hearing venue.'

With no offence to either town, quite why have Bury St Edmunds and Southampton been chosen? When I last looked, Bury St Edmunds was nowhere near the South East. Even as a northerner I would not have put Southampton in the South West.

The MoJ went on to state that implementation of changes to which courts process divorce petitions will be phased depending on the HMCTS region. It says that the current dates for each region are:

  • London / SE – October 2015
  • Midlands – January 2015
  • North East – November 2014
  • North West – November 2014
  • South West – April 2015
  • Wales – January 2015

There is a marked lack of clarity from the MoJ about the final number and identity of courts likely to be processing divorces in England and Wales by the end of next year. So we have submitted a further Freedom of information request.

In other news...

Meanwhile, something else that will affect how we issue proceedings is the HMCTS's introduction of a new fee payment service which will allow repeat business users to pay court fees electronically, instead of issuing cheques. The service will be available for customers that use all offices of the county court and Family Court and magistrates' courts that deal with civil and family work. It will also be available to users of the National Business Centres (County Court Money Claims Centre – Salford and County Court Business Centre – Northampton), the Royal Courts of Justice, probate registries and the Court of Protection.

The service was initially due to be launched at the end of September 2014 but, it says, the development of the system has taken a few weeks longer than expected, HMCTS rescheduled the launch of the new service nationally for 17 November.

Tony Roe is a solicitor and  family law arbitrator at Tony Roe Solicitors, Berkshire

Twitter: @tonyroedivorce

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