The Perils of Using Online Divorce Services

In a world of increasing internet accessibility and “Doctor Google”, it is easy to understand why many people consider alternatives to instructing solicitors within divorce proceedings. In a period of remote learning, remote working and distant socialising, the appeal of online divorce services is clear. They often offer cheaper services than conventional solicitors. They advertise a “no fuss” approach, often with online portals that claim they shall keep you updated.

The branding is usually bright, easily navigated websites interspersed with punchy user accolades proclaiming their virtues. They are the Primark of the legal world – encouraging the user to do most of the work themselves in an attempt to keep costs down. The possibility of acting as a litigant in person (representing yourself) in Court proceedings can be tempting, but this can be intimidating, with legal and procedural requirements and nuance which can be difficult to navigate. In our latest article, Caroline Cockill-Guy takes a look at the risks and pitfalls associated with using online divorce services.

Re Yorston and others

Family law practitioners have made their reservations clear. The latest ruling in the case of Re Yorston and others emphasises the inherent risks and pitfalls of instructing such online companies. The Family Court dismissed 28 divorce petitions which had been filed by the same company (iDivorces) on behalf of individuals commencing divorce proceedings. The petitions cited – identically – the same grounds and unreasonable behaviour for the basis that each of the 28 marriages should be dissolved. The judge found that it was impossible for all 28 respondents to such petitions to have acted identically.

The reasoning provided by iDivorces was that they used standard wording across their petition drafting, and provided their client with the opportunity to amend the wording or clarify the points raised therein. However, the wording of the petitions were not general in nature – they stated that the respondent to the petition allegedly ignored the petitioner two days a week. It appears, therefore, that employees of the company had simply cut and pasted a standard template for perceived efficiency, whilst failing in their duty to ensure such provisions contained were relevant to the client.

Such duplication across not 1 or 2, but 28 separate petitions can only be seen as an inherent failure of the company to conduct their business in a proper manner and without due care and attention. The Judge therefore ruled that the 28 petitions should be dismissed and all the individuals involved (who had already experienced the turmoil and instability that are inherent within divorce proceedings) had to begin the whole divorce process again. The iDivorce website itself cites “we are not here to profit from this difficult time in your life.” The irony is clear – in their own cost cutting efforts, they have passed additional burden onto their clients through their own ineptitude. As a result, the petitioners will have to pay the Court issue fee again.

Risks

Practitioners within family law (and especially divorce proceedings) have been aware of the risks and pitfalls of using such online companies. Often, work is conducted by non-qualified legal professionals who are overseen by a singular qualified solicitor as a supervisor. This means such work is process and quantity driven in order to drive costs down. In highly complex and emotive proceedings such as family law, this comes at a risk to the service-user. In some cases, there may not even be a qualified legal professional at all. Such “loopholes” enabling companies to act on this basis are to the detriment of the service user. Often, it means that there will be insufficient indemnity insurance in place. This means that should the advice received have been incorrect (such as the submission of 28 identical petitions), then there is little to no recourse for the client. This can have serious financial ramifications further down the line, with any (validly brought) claims likely to be extinguished due to the lack of accountability of these companies.

There are other downsides of utilising such services. A simple perusal of any Trustadvisor reviews throws up the same comments and complaints. Clients struggle to get in contact with their caseworker. Due to volume of work, case handlers often do not have any knowledge of the relevant cases. Clients are instead referred to detailed online, written guidance instead of being given a clear explanation of the process of their own divorce and proceedings in a manner that is easily understood and can be put into action. As has been proven, there is a lack of bespoke service as the caseworkers operate entirely within the boundaries and constraints of the portal they utilise. In addition, in an attempt to keep overhead costs down, remote working is a norm, meaning that highly sensitive documents and personal information are at a greater risk of being exposed to third parties.

The whole process of divorce is life changing. It is a fundamental breakdown of an inherent aspect of your life. It can be extremely traumatic and stressful. It is therefore vital that such process is dealt with by competent, professional solicitors who understand the importance of the individuality of each client and their circumstances, with an appreciation for the necessity of one-to-one meetings – albeit by telephone, zoom or face to face where possible. This enables advice to be personal, applicable and focussed to the client, their wants, needs and desired outcomes. It also helps to build the relationship between solicitor and client to enable the practitioner to support the client in one of the most difficult times of their lives.

Butcher & Barlow LLP

At Butcher & Barlow, we have an extensive team of family law solicitors that handle divorce and the challenges divorce can have on a daily basis. When it comes to helping you through a divorce, we truly believe that there is no alternative to having a qualified solicitor that you can meet with face-to-face and who fully understands your case, needs, and requirements. If you are beginning the process of a divorce and would like to get in touch with a member of our team, please do not hesitate to call your local branch today and learn how we can help you.

Caroline is a Partner at the Firm and has been practicing Family Law for over 20 years. She can be reached at ccockill-guy@butcher-barlow.co.uk