How has Covid-19 impacted on the ability to get divorced?
The pandemic has put tremendous pressure on UK relationships with even the strongest couples suffering under strain with reports of a rise in marital breakups and applications for divorce, so, what impact has this had on the ability to get divorced?
As the year anniversary approaches when the first lockdown ensued, families across the country have had to stay locked down together for periods of months and along with many home schooling their children. The impact of Covid-19 has caused many job losses with the possibility of more to come which in turn has caused many people to struggle financially, leaving those whose marriages have broken down wondering how they are going to pay for a divorce – and more so compounded by the fact that legal aid has reduced significantly.
With Covid-19 affecting the economy on a large scale, we asked family law professionals how this has impacted on the ability to get divorced? And whether couples are trying different avenues/options; or attempting to work out their differences rather than divorce.
Victoria Brown, senior associate solicitor at Anthony Gold Solicitors LLP said:
“In my experience, the significant financial strain that Covid-19 has placed on many separating couples has meant that they are looking to explore different, more cost-effective ways of resolving matters.
“In terms of divorce, I have noticed a large shift towards people issuing proceedings themselves using the online portal with advice from a solicitor in the background. The online divorce portal has made it much easier for unrepresented individuals to petition for divorce without the assistance of a solicitor, saving them money that they can put towards seeking legal advice on more complex matters such as financial settlements.
“The pandemic has also encouraged a greater focus on alternative means of dispute resolution, including mediation, collaborative law and arbitration. The potential cost of litigation and the significant backlogs within the court system have resulted in separating couples showing a greater willingness towards exploring alternatives to court, which I hope will continue when the pandemic is over.
“I have also found that clients are looking for more affordable solutions. For example, I have seen an increased demand for unbundled services which enable clients to place limits on their legal fees, provided that they are willing to take more of an active role themselves. Unbundled services do need to be structured very carefully and offered only in appropriate cases, however can be an excellent way of keeping legal costs to a minimum and focussing a client’s limited resources on aspects of their case that need the most attention.”
Rachel Roberts, regional director at Stowe Family Law LLP commented. She said:
“In many ways, the economic impact of Covid-19 has yet to be felt or fully understood. The impact of furlough arrangements and other government support is likely to have delayed rather than necessarily prevented job losses and liquidations. We have found in lockdown 3 that people are being slightly more cautious about proceedings, with financial fears often driving that caution. I recall in the period following 2008, many people took preliminary advice but chose not to press on with a divorce, instead waiting until the house marketing started to move and assets went up in value before ending the marriage. If we experience a long recession following Covid, we can probably expect a similar pattern of behaviour. Some may be trying for a genuine reconciliation, and others may simply be biding their time.
“In terms of advising clients, as always this is an individual approach and ultimately, without a crystal ball, it is very difficult to know when the time is right to move things forward. Sometimes, there are clear benefits to a delay, but usually it’s a case of weighing up the emotional costs vs the potential financial ones, to arrive at the right decision for a client. Often, if the other party wants to proceed, they will have no choice but to do so in any event.”
Samantha Woodham, barrister and co-founder of The Divorce Surgery added:
“We only advise separating couples together, which gives us a unique perspective from other family lawyers who only advise one spouse. What we have noticed is that the pandemic has accelerated a change which was already coming. Separating couples are sick of the drama and stigma surrounding divorce. Most just want to extricate themselves in a way which is financially fair to each of them, and which meets the emotional needs of their family as a whole. I believe Covid-19 has given us all enormous pause for thought. There is no point entering into conflict simply for conflict’s sake. Separating couples are increasingly aware of the emotional toll a bad divorce (and a deeply unhappy marriage) can have on the wellbeing of children and adults alike. So our experience is that divorcing couples are looking to treat divorce as a shared problem to navigate together, rather than a battle to be ‘won’ or ‘lost’.
“The pandemic has also been a massive financial hit for many families. This brings into sharp focus the cost of divorce, and now, more than ever, couples are attracted by fixed fee, streamlined approaches. But it goes much deeper than fee rates. For many separating couples, there is a crucial decision to be made about whether now is a financially rational time to proceed with divorce, or whether they should separate but wait to resolve the finances until the economy has stabilised, or they have better visibility on their economic future. If one spouse is furloughed, or has a business interest which is proving difficult to value for the long term (either because they are in an industry which is in a temporary shutdown, such as leisure and travel, or experiencing an unsustainable boom, such as healthcare testing) then right now is not the time to be making permanent decisions about the division of their finances. There may be a superficial attraction, on the side of one spouse, to ‘capitalise’ on a poor financial outlook. However, my view is this is hugely misconceived. If you put your spouse, and ultimately the Court, in a position in which your asset base or earning capacity cannot be valued, then you are likely guaranteed a long, contentious and expensive divorce ending up with a court order which will have to account for the unknowns by prolonging your financial relationship and claims against each other. The much more pragmatic approach, which is what we see on a daily basis at The Divorce Surgery, is separating couples who have a realistic, transparent conversation about their financial picture, so that they can both agree when it makes sense for them as a family to start divorce proceedings.”
Stacey Nevin, senior associate in Kingsley Napley’s family and divorce team further added:
“Whilst the Family Courts have adapted relatively well in the pandemic (moving to remote court hearings fairly quickly), the number of cases the courts are dealing with has increased and non-urgent matters are taking longer to get before a judge. This delay can result in higher costs for both parties, at a time when finances may already be tight (the Office of National Statistics reported a record high redundancy rate in three months to November 2020). However, clients have always had a wide variety of Alternative Dispute Resolution methods, and the increased delays we are now seeing for non-urgent matters has, hopefully, put a renewed focus on these. For example, mediation can offer a more cost effective and less adversarial way of resolving the financial arrangements on a divorce. Separating couples can also consider round table meetings (which can be conducted virtually) with solicitors or private court hearings (arbitration or a private Financial Dispute Resolution hearing). Whilst a “private judge” has to be paid for, often the overall costs are lower, as the parties can seek a resolution far quicker than in the court process. Clients can, if they need to, replicate the court process without the delay that can be encountered with court proceedings, saving time, money and hopefully reducing the emotional stress that can be encountered with drawn out proceedings.”