18 July 2018
Divorce – now there’s an app for that!
Can I get divorced online?
While the short answer to this question is yes, online separation agreement are still limited by certain criteria, and there are some potential risks you may wish to consider before proceeding.
The B.C. Government recently announced that divorcing couples can now apply for a joint divorce (where both parties agree to the divorce) online via their website, or through the use of an app. While the full implications of this development are yet to be determined, online divorce is now an option for an estimated 3,000 British Columbians where there are no children at issue, where no support or property issues have yet to be determined, and where both parties agree on all pertinent matters.
Benefits of an online divorce
The benefits of this advance in technology include increased efficiency and access to justice at a reduced cost. As a collaborative and settlement based lawyer, I’m pleased to see innovations that defer family law cases away from the courts, freeing up valuable court resources for those cases that truly do require a Judge to intervene.
Having experimented with the beta model online, I found it to be user friendly, with a straightforward ‘question and answer’ process, and helpful FAQ support along the way. If you enter certain ‘red flag’ answers, the system simply tells you that you are not eligible to use the online process for your divorce. I am confident that this platform will work for many uncontested divorce applications where children, property and support are not in dispute.
There could however be some potentially serious pitfalls for those looking to fast track their divorce proceedings online.
Risks of an online divorce
Know your rights
The use of a simple online system might make it far too easy for divorcing couples to bypass independent legal advice, which can be an important way to ensure that both parties are fully aware of their rights and obligations. Legal advice does not necessarily have to be paid for, as one can access legal aid, pro bono clinics, duty counsel (free, volunteers lawyers at almost all court houses), or the various self-help centers around the province. Understanding your rights and obligations at the outset is an important way to ensure you are protected in any legal proceeding.
I have concern for those who may be in abusive or oppressive relationships, marriages of convenience, marriages for immigration purposes, or for those who simply live on the fringes and may not be cognizant of their entitlements or protections in a divorce. Will an online system make it easier for one spouse to demand that the other ‘click here’ to agree to a divorce, when it may not be in their spouse’s best interest? While the B.C. Registry vets all submitted paperwork, the Court Registry employees do not, and cannot, provide independent legal advice, or verify consent.
A related concern is that online divorce proceeding could impact future claims, especially in the areas of financial support or property division. For example, a married spouse currently has two years from the time of their divorce to make a support or property claim. A divorce order effectively severs the spousal relationship, thus starting the 2 year time clock. A vindictive or oppressive spouse could get their partner to click an app or use an online tool to obtain a divorce order and then wait 2 years from that time to try and block a future claim. This could effectively prohibit their ex-spouse from accessing support they may otherwise have been entitled to, or addressing a property claim they should have made prior to the 2 year time limit.
Legal services simply deferred?
While this new technology may work for many divorcing couples, it could also lead to future legal problems, still requiring the assistance of lawyers, but just later in the process.
For example, if the online process is done incorrectly, the parties may get a “Rejection Notice” from the Court Registry. They may then require legal assistance to help correct the reasons for the rejection. Additionally, couples may miss certain intricacies in the paperwork, or think something is not important, inadvertently contravening strict rules and procedures. Again, lawyers may be needed to provide clarity in these circumstances.
As a side note – at least a dozen times a year members of the Watson Goepel Family Law Group are asked to help clean up situations for people who tried to facilitate a legal separation or divorce on their own, without getting some basic legal advice first.
Understandably, some may be sceptical of lawyer criticism of this new model, arguing that they are simply concerned with their bottom line. It is important to note that many straightforward joint divorce applications are already done using a fixed fee or reduced fee model, such as we do at Watson Goepel. Overall, straightforward joint divorces likely will not significantly affect a lawyer’s bottom line.
Most family law lawyers have seen what can happen when one party is unfairly taken advantage of in a divorce proceeding, and, contrary to popular humor, are interested in fair outcomes that keep the best interests of both parties in mind. As a settlement based lawyer, I am encouraged to see out-of-court processes evolve to make simple divorces more efficient. However, I still encourage anyone going through a relationship breakdown to, at minimum, seek basic independent legal advice before proceeding. It is a small investment that can pay off in the long run, providing a smoother transition and increased peace of mind.
Hear me discuss this topic live in a recent CKNW interview on the Lynda Steele show.
Jonathan Lazar is a Partner, and head of the Family Law Group at Watson Goepel LLP.