How long does a divorce take?

How long does a divorce take in England is a question which clients frequently ask (as is, ‘Can I have a quick divorce?’) so it may be helpful to outline the various steps involved and give an indication of roughly how long they take:-

(1) The first step is to lodge the divorce petition with the court.  Once the court receives this it will then post (usually by second class post) a copy of the divorce petition to the Respondent together with a document called an “Acknowledgement of Service.”

(2) The Acknowledgement of Service is basically a document which the Respondent is requested to return to the court indicating (a) that he/she has received the petition and (b) whether he/she intends defending the divorce. If the Respondent is resident in the UK the Acknowledgement will state that the Respondent has seven days in which to reply. At this point most people who receive a divorce petition consult a solicitor if they have not done so already. Whether they do in fact return the Acknowledgement within the seven days varies greatly and much depends on how the matter has been handled up until that point.

(3) When the Acknowledgement of Service is returned to the court a copy will be sent to the Petitioner (or the Petitioner’s solicitor if the Petitioner is legally represented). Assuming that the Respondent has indicated that he/she will not be defending the divorce (as it usually the case because it is difficult to “defend” a divorce) then the Petitioner now has to file a statement with the court. The statement will confirm that the details in the divorce petition are correct and that the signature which appears on the Acknowledgement of Service  is that of the Respondent. Once this statement has been prepared it is returned to the court with a request that the court considers the evidence and decides whether the petitioner is entitled to a divorce.

(4) On receipt of this statement and request the file is placed before a District Judge (or more commonly a Justices’ Clerk) who considers all the paperwork. If he/she decides that it is in order he will grant a certificate to this effect and send a copy to the Petitioner giving a date when decree nisi will be pronounced.

(5) Decree nisi will be pronounced on the date which the District Judge has previously indicated in his certificate. It is unusual for anyone to attend court on this occasion and it is neither expected nor necessary. All that happens, in effect, is that a Judge says in open court, “I pronounce decree nisi in cases numbered ABC to XYZ”. In fact, many judges dislike being used as a rubber stamp in this way but that is the system and it is unusual for either of the spouses to attend court for that pronouncement.

(6) After decree nisi has been pronounced the Petitioner must wait for six weeks before applying for the decree nisi to be made absolute. The decree nisi does not end the marriage. It is a provisional decree which says that the parties are entitled to a divorce but the decree nisi itself does not end the marriage. In order to be able to remarry a decree absolute has to be applied for and obtained. The delay of six weeks is compulsory and cannot be abridged without very good reason. After that period of time has elapsed the Petitioner may apply for the decree to be made absolute and does so by making a request and paying the necessary fee. On receipt of these the court normally pronounces the decree absolute within a few days and sends a copy of the decree to both parties or their solicitors. If the Petitioner does not apply for the decree nisi to be made absolute within four and a half months of decree nisi the Respondent may do so although he/she cannot do so before then. Judicial separation is slightly different in that there is only one decree rather than two. A decree of judicial separation is pronounced instead of a decree nisi and nothing further needs to be done in that case.

All of the above steps used to take about 4/5 months from start to finish and you will see that the compulsory delay of six weeks between the decree nisi and decree absolute accounts for a considerable portion of this. How long a divorce takes exactly does rather depend on the speed with which third parties (the court and the Respondent) deal with their respective parts and it is not all dependent upon the Petitioner. If the Respondent is resident overseas, for example, the time for returning the Acknowledgement of Service is extended from the normal seven days to thirty

If the Respondent does not return the Acknowledgement of Service this can cause additional delay because it is necessary to prove that the Respondent has received the divorce petition before matters can proceed. It may therefore be necessary for the Petitioner to arrange to have another copy of the divorce petition served on the Respondent by a court bailiff or to arrange another form of personal service which can be proved. Similarly, the Respondent can cause delay by indicating that he/she will defend the divorce and going through the first motions of doing so. This rarely results in a defended divorce at the end of the day but it can slow matters down.

There are some things which can be done to speed the process up (except for the compulsory delay of six weeks between decree nisi and decree absolute). For instance, the Petitioner’s solicitor can ask for the divorce petition to be returned to him for service rather than waiting for the court to do it (by second class post). This can be particularly useful if the Petitioner knows that the Respondent might not co-operate in the divorce because by the Petitioner’s solicitor effecting personal service at this stage the Petitioner does not have to wait to see if the Respondent will respond to the court and then wait seven days after before taking action. If the Petitioner’s solicitor is aware of potential delays like this at the outset something can be done to minimise them. Naturally, if there are difficulties of this nature and additional court applications etc have to be made in order to deal with them it might have an effect on the costs of the divorce as well as the time scale.

There is one other matter which needs to be mentioned. Sometimes one of the parties to the divorce asks that the other side does not apply for decree nisi to be made absolute until financial matters have been settled. This is not always appropriate and there have to be particular circumstances present to justify it. All the same, those circumstances are not uncommon and if they exist a court would agree not to entertain an application for decree absolute until financial matters have been settled. Where this applies it can significantly delay the time it takes to obtain decree absolute.

Finally, the observant will have noticed that the whole process used to take 4/5 months. Unfortunately that time scale has slipped and the reason is down to the courts. Whereas a solicitor used to be able to send a divorce petition to a court one day and the court would issue it the next those days are long since gone. Now it can easily take two weeks or more for a court to even send out a divorce petition and this delay is applicable to every step of the process. People should now count on a divorce taking at least six months. In fact a recent freedom of information request to the Bury St Edmunds Divorce Unit revealed that the average time between making an application for divorce and decree absolute was over a year.

It is fair to say that using a solicitor to obtain a divorce is likely to take less time than doing it oneself for the simple reason that any mistake can add months to the time scale.

Even in the most uncontentious cases the normal content of a divorce petition and the acknowledgement of service can affect divorce timescales unless they are carefully explained to the recipient spouse.

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