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Getting a Divorce during the COVID-19 Pandemic? The Benefits of Alternative Dispute Resolution

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With everything going on in the world, you may be feeling relationship strain.

It is very normal in times of great stress for people to start thinking about whether their relationship is healthy and whether it is making them as happy and fulfilled as they want to be. From the weight of the COVID-19 lockdown itself to the pressures of being out of work or on furlough leave, we are certainly living through a time of great stress.

Divorcing or separating during the pandemic can be tough. But COVID-19 or not, if your relationship has broken down, separating now may be the best option for you and your children (if you have any).

One of the obstacles you may face are family court delays. However, fortunately, many couples are actually able to proceed with divorce or dissolution without having to get the courts involved (other than to approve the divorce and any agreements you make about finances and your children).

Approaching difficult questions such as, ‘where will the kids live after the divorce is finalised?’  or ‘should we sell the family home?’ may feel impossible at the start, even if you and your partner are splitting on good terms.

That is why many couples turn to methods of discussion and conversation called ‘Alternative Dispute to help them sort out all the issues they need to talk about during the divorce/dissolution process.

Keeping divorce and dissolution out of court

There are three main parts to getting a divorce or dissolution:

  • The divorce petition or civil partnership dissolution application
  • The financial settlement – i.e. your agreement about how to divide your finances and spousal maintenance
  • Arrangements for children – such as where they will life after the divorce is final and how much contact they should have with their non-resident parent

Only the divorce petition/dissolution application requires a court application to be official. The other aspects can be sorted out informally using Alternative Dispute Resolution (except some financial arrangements, such as pension sharing because pension providers cannot split a pension without a court order).

You can apply to court after you have come to an agreement about finances and children, but this is simply to make your agreement legally binding and enforceable. The resulting court order is called a ‘Consent Order’.

There are many advantages to sorting out your divorce or dissolution out of court:

  • It is cheaper
  • You get more control over the outcome
  • It tends to be less stressful (no need to attend daunting court hearings or rely on a third party judge to make the final decision)
  • It tends to be faster.

This last point is particularly relevant during these COVID-19 times, because the family courts are facing extreme backlogs.

So, what options do you have for working out your divorce or dissolution out of court?

Informal negotiations

Informal negotiation is the first option many couples try. This simply involves discussing the issues that need to be sorted out between yourselves and coming to an agreement. For example, you may have a conversation about what should happen to the family home and agree that you should buy out your ex-partner’s share.

It is usually sensible to instruct a divorce solicitor to help with this stage – they can negotiate on your behalf, provide advice about whether the agreement is fair and covers all your needs, and put your final agreement in writing.

They can also apply to court for a Consent Order – this will make your agreement legally binding so you can enforce it in court later on if your ex-partner does not stick to it. On the finances side, it will also prevent your ex-partner from making future legal claims against you.

Mediation

Mediation involves attending a meeting or series of meetings with your ex-partner to discuss divorce or dissolution issues with the help of a qualified mediator.

The mediator is not there to take sides or make a judgment about what your agreement should be. Their role is to guide your discussions and help you defuse conflict.

If you are able to come to an agreement at the end of the sessions, they will put it into writing for you and provide advice about what you need to do to make it legally binding.

Many couples find it useful to go back to mediation to help them resolve issues that arise as the years go on, for example, as their children grow up.

All in all, the process is usually much faster, cheaper and less stressful than court proceedings. You also get to stay fully in control of the outcome, which means you have a better chance of achieving the outcome you want.

Your divorce solicitor can provide advice on how to find the right mediator.

Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (MIAMs)

A MIAM isn’t technically a full Alternative Dispute Resolution process. It is an initial meeting to get information about mediation so you can decide whether it is right for you.

Most couples are legally required to go to a MIAM before they can apply to family court in relation to finances or children.

However, you can go to the MIAM alone, which means you will not be prevented from applying to court if your ex-partner does not want to cooperate.

After attending the MIAM, the mediator will give you a certificate which you can use on your court application if you decide not to go ahead with full mediation.

Are the divorce courts open during COVID-19?

Yes – the family courts are an ‘essential service’ so are therefore open, even during national lockdown.

Although Alternative Dispute Resolution works for many couples, out-of-court agreement is not always possible. So, if you have tried to make an agreement but have been unsuccessful, or out-of-court settlement is impossible for another reason (such as domestic abuse issues), the courts are still there to help.

However, one thing to be aware of is that delays will be likely. When the coronavirus first reached the UK, there were a lot of disruptions that caused a court backlog, such as the implementation of Covid-19 health & safety policies, staff illness, and administrative delays. The courts are still overcoming these issues and are still making their way through cases delayed by the first coronavirus lockdown as well as handling new cases.

Should you wait until COVID-19 is over to get a divorce?

This is ultimately up to you. If you and your ex-partner are both on the same page about divorce and you think you can come to an agreement about your finances and children, then it probably does not matter whether you get the divorce now or later. Of course, the benefit of getting the divorce now is that it will be finalised sooner and you can start moving on with your life.

The main delay you will encounter in this situation is when applying for a divorce or dissolution – it is currently taking longer than normal to process these applications. You may also face a delay when seeking a Consent Order or some other orders, such as Pension Sharing Orders (because a pension provider cannot split a pension without a court order).

If you are concerned about having to go to court, it is still worth talking to a divorce solicitor as it is completely normal to feel anxious. With the right advice and support, even people with the most argumentative of ex-partners are often able to come to a positive agreement.

Get friendly, practical advice about divorce and civil partnership dissolution during the COVID-19 pandemic

At Devereux & Co, we understand just how difficult coping with divorce and dissolution can be. We are here to provide expert advice and a warm, welcoming service to help you sort through the issues and find a positive solution.

Every member of our Family Law team is an expert in their practice area. Among our talented lawyers we have Oliver Early a family law specialist with over 25 years’ experience. Oliver is a member of constructive family law network, Resolution, and was formally the Director of Bristol Family Mediation.

During times of COVID-19, we are still open for business and able to take on your case. So, to get started, just give our Bristol divorce solicitors a call at your local branch in Shirehampton or Westbury-on-Trym or fill in our online enquiry form.

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