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A change in technology is a change in fees

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Mena Ruparel answers key questions concerning the online divorce pilot. 

What can solicitors charge for when the new online petition is launched?

In Review of the online divorce pilot project , Karen Dovaston takes you through the expected changes to the online divorce petition, which is a streamlined version of the current petition. It looks as though it requires little legal knowledge to complete in its current form as it is designed with the litigant in person (LiP) in mind rather than the solicitor.

Solicitors currently charge anywhere from £200 - £1200 plus VAT to deal with an undefended divorce case from start to finish. Many solicitors have told me that they think it is fair to charge in the region of three hour’s work for the undefended proceedings, even if it only take 90 minutes or so to deal with the case. Some solicitors still charge hourly rates of circa £200 per hour and upwards to deal with this work, which surprised me as this is work that is easy to unbundle but may be much fairer to the client.

The new petition has been a relatively simple form since 2011 when it was introduced. Practitioners will remember that the statement of arrangements for children was put to one side during the last re-write. It is clearer but still taxes the average person so solicitors are still instructed to deal with these applications.

What can solicitors charge for a process that will soon be the simplest it has ever been?

There are three areas that I can see that the petitioner should take advice:

  1. In an ideal world, the petitioner will take advice about the fact of divorce that they should pursue before jumping in to issue the petition themselves.
  2. It looks as though the statement of case will still need to be drafted in the same way, although HMCTS were still in the final design stage for that section when they showcased the technology. It is reasonable to assume that it will take a minimum of 30 minutes to draft something sensible for that section if the petitioner is pursuing an unreasonable behaviour petition. The draft statement of case should still be agreed with the respondent if a solicitor is involved in assisting the petitioner. However, as the system is designed for the LiP it may be that there are no signposts to encourage the petitioner to discuss the petition with the respondent before issue.
  3. The petitioner will potentially need advice about pursuing the costs of the petition. It is more likely that the petitioner will apply for costs and then seek advice when the certificate of entitlement is sent out and the costs order information is made known to the parties.

If clients are sensible they will see a solicitor to take advice before they start the petition online by themselves. However, it is more likely that the solicitor will be providing unbundled advice to the client after something has gone wrong and they are asked to fix it. The most likely area of concern will be the respondent’s failure to return the acknowledgment of service.

It may be that the days of the fixed fee undefended divorce are at an end. One thing is for certain, practitioners will need to adapt their services and pricing to reflect this technological change. 

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