It is fair to say that tensions can run high in any relationship at times, but perhaps more so now given that your partner is one of the only people (if not the only person) you have seen for a prolonged period because of the coronavirus lockdown.

News sources have reported that as a result of the lockdown in China, divorce rates in the country increased dramatically. Restrictions are gradually being lifted in England and the surrounding nations and many people are likely considering the future of their marriage or civil partnership.

I can’t agree matters with my former partner and I want to go to court. How has coronavirus impacted this option?

Courts in England and Wales are still operating to provide a limited judicial service with Judges still making decisions in family law cases.

In March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice issued guidance stating the default position is that hearings should take place remotely. How such a hearing is conducted will depend on the court; it could be by telephone or via video conference. Importantly, it was acknowledged that remote hearings would not be suitable for all cases.

Remote hearings can present a number of difficulties for those involved. Setting up (and maintaining) a remote connection may present challenges, especially if you do not have access to the internet at home or your broadband is temperamental.

Another cause for concern is that remote hearings still need to be held confidentially. A person who is not a party to the proceedings should not be present without the Judge’s permission. This includes children, which could be difficult if you are the only person in your household available to supervise them.

In short, you can still make an application to the court but it is worth noting that it is likely that it will proceed remotely. However, with lockdown restrictions now being lifted, we wait to see when courts will reopen fully and return to hearings with attendance at Court. It also remains to be seen whether some matters will continue to be conducted remotely moving forward, now that the IT infrastructure is in place.

I don’t want to go to court. Are there any other options?

Resolving a matter outside of court is known as using Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). The courts have a duty to encourage parties to use non-court dispute resolution if appropriate at every stage of proceedings. With the courts operating on a reduced scale as a result of coronavirus, ADR may be a suitable way to resolve your matter. You could consider the following options:

  1. Mediation
    Mediation is where an independent third party tries to help you and your former partner reach an agreement on issues you are otherwise in dispute or disagreement over. These issues could be in respect of children and/or finances. Mediation can provide flexible outcomes that suit both parties’ specific needs.

    However, it is important to highlight that mediation is a voluntary process and so you cannot force your former partner to engage. A further potential problem is that mediation is not binding on those involved.

  2. Arbitration
    Arbitration is when a neutral and impartial legally qualified individual makes a decision on your case after hearing evidence. Arbitration can be beneficial because you are able to choose the date and time, whereas you have no such options with court proceedings. You can also choose where the arbitration takes place, including remotely.

    You should be aware that, unlike mediation, arbitration is binding. The Arbitrator will deliver an Award (for finances) or a Determination (for children). Your lawyer will then draft a Consent Order for finances and consider whether an Order is required for children matters.

    ADR in general can be extremely useful in resolving certain cases, and particularly so in light of the current limitations the courts are facing. A notable benefit of ADR is that you are not bound by a court timetable. As such, resolution can be tailored around the lives of those involved.

Whether divorce rates increase in England and Wales once lockdown is lifted ultimately remains to be seen. If you wish to discuss your options further, we offer a free initial consultation appointment where you can speak with one of our lawyers about your matter and decide how you wish to proceed from there. Please call us on 01722 412000 (Salisbury) or 01264 400500 (Andover) to arrange your free initial consultation.

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