Getting a divorce is a court process, which involves a judge. But in the vast majority of cases it is not necessary to go to court in person – the process is handled through the post.
The important point to grasp is that with very few exceptions, the process is really administrative – the law does not aim to establish the real reasons why a marriage has broken down, and it does not apportion responsibility between the husband and wife, for the breakdown of the marriage. In practical terms most lawyers know that the real reasons for the breakdown of a marriage are buried in the mists of time, and that the husband and the wife probably have very different opinions about it. The fact that one of them has taken the decision to present a divorce petition is more or less accepted as proof that the marriage has broken down. So the court aims to make the process of pronouncing a divorce as simple and uncontentious as possible, in the hope that the husband and wife will be able to direct their financial and emotional resources to more important questions, like sorting out their finances, and ensuring that their children are helped through the process of parental separation as constructively as possible.
Of course a divorce is usually an emotionally charged subject for the people actually involved. Often one or both of them will feel very disappointed that the marriage has broken down, and will want to see that the responsibility of the other for causing the situation is recognised by the court process. Perhaps unfortunately, that is not going to happen.
The basic steps in the process of getting divorced are as follows: –
Step one: One of you will have to prepare a divorce petition. It is possible to do this yourself and there is more information on our website, but it is wise to use a solicitor who specialises in divorce and family law, particularly if you want to ensure that your divorce goes through the court quickly and smoothly, or if there are potentially complex financial issues between you and your husband/wife. The person who prepares the divorce petition becomes the petitioner for the purposes of the proceedings, and the other person becomes the respondent.
Step two: The divorce petition is sent to the respondent so that s/he has opportunity to comment on it. In practice this is usually something of a formality, because most of the contents of the divorce petition are relatively straightforward and uncontroversial.
Step three: The petitioner (or his/her solicitor) sends the divorce petition to the Court Service’s Regional Divorce Centre for the part of the country you are living in. It is accompanied by a fee, the original marriage certificate, and various other supporting paperwork. Apple Tree Family Law has offices in Bristol and Exeter, both of which come under the South West Regional Divorce Centre.
Step four: The staff at the court office review the documentation to check that it seems to be in order. Then they give it a case number, date stamp it, and send it to the respondent at the address specified in the petition. Turnaround times at the court office vary according to how busy they are, but generally it seems to take them about three to four weeks to do this.
Step five: The respondent receives the divorce petition through the post. It is accompanied by a form known as an “acknowledgement of service form”. The respondent is invited to complete the acknowledgement of service form and send it back to the court office within 14 days, although in practice nothing happens if s/he does not comply with that timeframe.
Step six: The respondent fills in the acknowledgement of service form. The form is relatively simple, but generally the respondent would be wise to speak to a solicitor who specialises in divorce and family law to ensure that s/he fills it in correctly, so that the divorce goes through the court office smoothly and quickly. This is also an opportunity for the respondent to obtain some advice about related issues, such as financial questions and arrangements for children.
Step seven: The respondent signs the acknowledgement of service form and sends it back to the court office, and the court staff forward it to the petitioner or his/her solicitor. This is pretty much the full extent of the respondent’s involvement in the process. If s/he does not want to cooperate she may refuse to send the form back. In that case the petitioner will need to speak to his/her solicitor about the options to take the petition forward. As long as the problem has been foreseen there is usually an answer.
Step eight: The petitioner fills in another form, which basically confirms that the signature on the acknowledgement of service form is, indeed, the signature of her/his husband or wife, and also verifies certain points stated in the petition. This form needs to be filled in very carefully. It is then sent back to the court office.
Step nine: The court staff put all the paperwork in front of a judge, who reviews it and, assuming it is all in order, certifies that the petitioner is entitled to a divorce. If the judge notices mistakes in the way the documentation is filled in, it will all be sent back to the petitioner and the respondent. But assuming it is all in order, the court staff allocate a date for the decree nice I, which is notified to the parties. This process can take anything from a few working days to several weeks, depending how busy the court is at that time.
Step ten: The decree nisi takes place. This is a slightly unusual occasion, in that it still occurs in open court, but neither the husband nor the wife, nor their lawyers are expected to be present. So a judge will pronounce the decree nisi, along with several others, to an empty courtroom, and the court staff then send a copy of it to the husband and the wife a few days later. At this stage their divorce is approved but they are still married.
Step eleven: The petitioner sends in an application for decree absolute. S/he has to wait six weeks from the date of the decree nisi to do this. In practice s/he may be advised to wait longer, particularly if financial issues between the petitioner and the respondent have not been resolved. The court staff usually issue the decree absolute within a couple of working days of receiving the application, and send the copies to the parties about a week later. The decree absolute is the date when the marriage is actually dissolved, so at that point the husband and wife become single again.
How long it takes to get divorced varies from case to case depending, primarily, on how quickly the husband and the wife each complete their part of the documentation, and on workloads at the court office. Typically, it takes around five months.
How much it costs to get divorced also varies. The petitioner pays a court fee of £550. The petitioner will also have to pay his/her solicitor assuming s/he uses one. At Apple Tree Family Law we charge £600 including VAT, some firms charge less, most charge a little more. The respondent will also have to pay for any legal advice s/he obtains. Most of the work is done by the petitioner and his/her solicitor, so the respondent’s expenses for this part of the process tend to be comparatively small.
But note that this process only dissolves the marriage, it does not deal with any related issues, such as sorting out your finances on divorce, or the arrangements for your children. If someone tells you that his/her divorce took years and cost thousands of pounds, they probably mean that they spent that money on disputes about those issues, rather than on the divorce process itself.
Can I make my husband/wife pay for the cost of my divorce? In theory you can, but it is often difficult to extract the money from him/her if s/he does not want to cooperate. So in practice any sharing of costs is likely to be a matter of agreement between you.
John Pratley is an expert divorce lawyer, who has more than 25 years experience advising clients purely about divorce and related family law issues, such as the financial consequences of separating and divorcing. After establishing the first niche family law practice in Bristol, and going on to senior management roles in a national firm, John set up Apple Tree Family Law in 2018. Apple tree family Law solicitors specialise in advice about divorce and financial issues.
We are based in Bristol and Exeter, but we have clients all over the UK and further afield. We offer, simply, clear and accurate advice about divorce and family law issues, and the very best client service, for a clear and reasonable price.