Court reform

Respondent's solicitors and digital divorce

Law Society Family Law Committee member Karen Dovaston looks at the respondent’s solicitors' journey with the online divorce portal.

Person working on computer

The solicitor’s digital divorce portal has been running for some time now. Anyone who knows me knows I love my tech and digital applications so I was keen to be involved in the digital project as early as possible.

The solicitor’s digital journey has moved through various amendments and improvements to get it to where we are now. Alongside it, the financial digital process has been expanding and so too has the portal for private law children applications.

There is one sticky area, however, and that is if you are a solicitor for a respondent receiving a divorce petition.

Previously, there was no capacity for a respondent’s solicitor to be put onto the system. That meant that if the respondent had a solicitor and the solicitor lodged the acknowledgment of service and notice of acting, the divorce would be pulled out of the digital portal and put into the (very slow) paper journey. This is suboptimal.

The system has been improved, slightly. The respondent’s solicitor is still not able to lodge the acknowledgement of service via the portal or register/link their interest in a divorce suit issued in the solicitor’s digital portal.

What they can do, however, is get their client to ask for a paper copy of the acknowledgement of service (AOS) – called the AOS Offline in the digital service – which the solicitor can then complete, email in to the Divorce Centre and a member of staff then inputs the information to the system linking the respondent’s solicitor with the case and keeping the suit in the digital system.

The AOS Offline forms are not the same as the well-known acknowledgement of service (D10) forms. They are modified to allow for the questions and answers in a way that mimics the digital journey and makes it easier for the court staff to input the information onto the system.

I have also found that if you email in the notice of acting and ask for the offline AOS, the court seem now to be emailing over the petition, letter to the respondent and the (holy grail) the blank AOS.

You need to tell your client they are getting another pack of the same documents they had before.

Also, I thought I would be clever and fill in a blank AOS form to send in with my notice of acting to cut out the additional work for the court staff. That did not work out as I hoped and now know that you have to ask for the AOS and it has to be the court sending it to you before you can complete it and send it back.

The irony of a member of court staff being needed to manually input replies to an AOS Offline form is not lost on me. Linking the respondent’s solicitor is a problem that is going to have to be solved when we look to the new divorce system, particularly as there will be joint applications made.

I also make a final comment that the litigant in person journey is really straightforward so your client should be able to respond themselves, if you do not want the delay of getting an offline AOS sent to you.

The recent figures from the Office of National Statistics show a significant slowing down of the process of the digital journey – which is not surprising as more and more solicitors move to the digital portal.

I remain convinced that it's still better to be in the digital portal than in the old paper route. At the very least, you can check in online to see where you are in the work process rather than, to quote Blondie, hanging on the telephone.

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