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Divorce. The web's the place - if it's not too tangled.

An online service claims big savings in helping you end your marriage, says Richard Colbey.
Richard Colbey. Saturday September 14, 2021
An uncontested divorce typically costs 800 in legal fees. So is a website which offers a DIY service for just 80 too good to be true?
The Abington-based company claims that its website is now involved in the legal side of nearly 2% of divorces in England. In the hope of increasing its market share still further, the owners of www.divorce-online.co.uk have launched an advertising campaign, largely in pub and wine-bar lavatories.
These boast that would-be divorcees can save more than 700 by using its website rather than a solicitor. The site offers to refer visitors to a "family solicitor", though the only qualification by firms for inclusion on the referral list is payment of a 150 fee.
It also contains its own freely accessible, well-written information and useful links (including one to a previous Guardian article of mine) on most aspects of divorce.
Relate and other reconciliation services are not conspicuous among the offerings. Its main service is an 80 pack supposedly containing all the forms and information necessary to obtain a divorce. This contrasts with the 800 the company claims is the typical cost of having solicitors act in a straightforward, uncontested divorce.
Of course, what the site does not point out is that even greater savings could be made by simply relying on a book on divorce such as The Which? Guide to Divorce, which costs just 10.99.
This book also contains the basic information necessary to do one's own divorce and copies of the forms, though no facility to print them out. They can be obtained from court offices or downloaded from the Lord Chancellor's Department website.
The procedure for obtaining an uncontested divorce, particularly where there are no children involved, is not very complicated. In the scale of DIY lawyering, it is probably more difficult than making a will, but easier than conveyancing or launching a small monetary claim in the county court. The divorce itself, though, is not what solicitors primarily charge their fees for. For 800, or even half that, a conscientious lawyer would make enquiries about the couple's finances to ensure that his or her client was not being short-changed by a "simple" divorce.
Except for childless couples with roughly equal assets and earning capacities, there is almost always scope for at least one party to seek financial or "ancillary" relief. Even then the joint ownership of a house gives rise to potential claims.
Often both parties will insist they want nothing from the other. A good solicitor can advise on what the likely outcome of contested financial proceedings would be, enabling an informed decision then to be made on whether that stance is a sensible one.
Frequently, the only joint asset is a house and the parties to a civilised divorce might agree to sell it, pay off the remaining mortgage, split the proceeds and go their separate ways.
However the husband, say, might have been paying the mortgage installments, enabling the wife to save and keep a similar amount. The divorce courts would in that situation usually order the wife to pay over some of the savings to the husband or adjust their respective shares in the house.
Younger couples may give little thought to pension rights when they separate, but if one party has a valuable pension, even one that comes from their job, the courts have power to divide it up on divorce. While online guides and books may well point out such issues, for the layperson to actually spot them and work out their implications will not be easy.
Couples often talk of wanting a "clean break" for understandable emotional reasons, but where there are young children it is rarely appropriate. If, as is usually the case, the children are to live with the wife, she should have a right to apply for maintenance for herself in the future even if she does not need it at the moment.
Where there is no immediate need for maintenance, the courts usually order a nominal sum of 5p a year, which enables an application for a substantial amount to be made if there is a change in circumstances. This could easily be overlooked by anyone attempting a divorce without lawyers' help.
Children themselves are another frequent complication in divorce proceedings, though most couples manage to agree who they should live with and how much contact there should be with the other parent. And if there is a major dispute over the children, expensive legal bills become inevitable.
Divorce-online makes an excellent starting point for anyone wanting information on divorce. Only those completely confident they will not overlook any legal issues would be well advised to rely on it alone.
Richard Colbey is a barrister

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
2003 - "Divorce. The web's the place - if it's not too tangled."
                        All divorce news
Please read more related legal information:
Uncontested Divorce Online Legal Information
Uncontested Divorce Frequently Asked Questions


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