Tech Corner: NeedsMet
Published: 21/11/2023 07:00
Whether we like it or not, the age of ‘do-it-yourself’ divorce is here.
In 2022 there were 80,443 divorces and dissolutions finalised in England and Wales (latest HMCTS figures).
In the same 12-month period there were just 31,277 financial remedy disposals (HMCTS terminology for, in essence, a final order).
That means in the period 1 January 2022 to 31 December 2022, 98,332 people (i.e. 49,166 marriages/civil partnerships) ended their marriage or civil partnership without conclusively sorting out their finances with a court order. If one works on the basis that people tend to finalise their divorce/dissolution and their finances at the same time, it can be said that in 2022 only 39% of divorces/dissolutions had a connected financial order made.
Those percentages have stayed broadly the same for at least the past 4 years (if not longer) and looking at the most recently published HMCTS figures for the first 6 months of no-fault (and online) divorce, things are only getting worse; in Q1 of 2023 there were 29,622 divorces/dissolutions but in only 32% (9,505) of those divorces/dissolutions were financial orders made.
To put it another way, so far this year 68% of people who have finalised their divorce/dissolution in England and Wales have done so without also making use of the legal system (even by consent) to resolve or ratify their financial arrangements.
It is worth noting here that of those same 29,622 ‘new law’ divorces finalised in Q1 of 2023, in 72% neither party were legally represented (at least in terms of a solicitor being on the record via the new online portal). The correlation between both parties being unrepresented in the divorce/dissolution and not having a financial order made is striking.
We simply do not know whether the c. 100,000 people each year who divorce without a financial order in place are reaching agreements about their finances, even if they are not getting such agreements approved by the court. Presumably at least some of them must be. But, if they are, we have little idea how or what agreements they are reaching. We don’t know if the resulting ‘deal’ is fair, we don’t know if there has been adequate (or any) disclosure, we don’t know whether any power dynamics are being taken advantage of and we don’t know if the outcome reached is one that allows both parties to meet their needs. These questions are currently the subject of a Nuffield Family Justice Observatory research project led by Professor Emma Hitchings, Professor Gillian Douglas, Dr Susan Purdon and Caroline Bryson. The profession, and to a lesser extent the government, focuses much attention on helping divorcing parties to avoid court – but what about those who never go near a court, a lawyer or even, perhaps, a mediator’s office?
One can, I think, safely presume that at least some of those c. 100,000 divorcing people each year who are leaving their finances ‘unresolved’ (legally) will have assets that need to be dealt with. These assets may not be the company, second homes/property-portfolios, inherited assets or such that lawyers are exposed to day to day, but they may well stretch to a house, a car and a couple of bank accounts.
NeedsMet.uk is a legal-tech solution that is being developed to help just those sorts of parties.
Rather than a platform that enables divorcing parties to reach an agreement online, it is a simple, low-cost ‘expectation management’ tool that will guide at least one of the parties towards a potential solution that would enable each party to meet their housing needs. It will provide a solution, not the solution.
Following the simple logic flow that is carried out in law firms throughout England and Wales every single day, NeedsMet will use technology to allow a person to:
- input the assets, liabilities and income that each party has;
- identify which assets they consider should/might be treated as ‘matrimonial’ and ‘non-matrimonial’;
- identify what each party’s housing need might be by reference to actual available properties that meet their search criteria (i.e. location and number of bedrooms) and then produce a short list of potential properties that would meet each party’s housing needs;
- identify whether each party could purchase the houses on those shortlists from an equal division of the matrimonial property plus their respective non-matrimonial property;
- if not, identify whether it might be possible to do so with the assistance of a mortgage;
- if not, suggest, a potential unequal division of assets if this would be needed to enable both parties to meet their housing needs at the level sought;
- produce a short bullet point summary showing the proposed outcome and what information was used to reach it, such that, if appropriate, it can be used as the start of the discussion; and
- provide information on potential next steps – whether that be mediation, legal advice or the preparation of a consent order.
NeedsMet will not be a panacea and it is not being developed to be one. It will not, for example, be able to assist in cases where parties have complex assets (including, for example, businesses), or where there are issues of non-disclosure. But most cases do not have complex assets or issues and, if they do, those are the cases that would usually find their way to a lawyer or a mediator in any event. It will also not provide any guidance in respect of pensions, save to make clear (very prominently) in any case where pensions are disclosed that both parties should take advice on the division of pensions. It will not deal with spousal maintenance but it will direct parties to the Child Maintenance Service.
NeedsMet will, however, serve to manage expectations from the beginning of the process and give people the best possible chance of beginning their discussions from a starting point grounded in reality. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the c. 100,000 people per year who are seemingly dividing their assets on the basis of, one might presume, the advice of family, friends, Google or Mumsnet.