The divorce app: a gift for life, not just for Christmas

It seems some of us have been stressing about Christmas since 12 November. That’s 42 days before the big event. That’s about 11.5 per cent of the year spent worrying about one day. Most of the stress is down to worrying about which presents to buy, closely followed by concerns about how much the celebrations will cost in total.

The money bit I get.  Christmas is ludicrously expensive, especially once you throw children into the equation (and I only have one to worry about).  Add to that an expensive bird nobody likes eating, a Christmas tree that costs more than you spend on plants and flowers in a whole year and fancy crackers with gifts nobody wants, and most bank accounts go into a tailspin.

Presents aren’t worth worrying about.  After all, how many times have you spent hours searching for the perfect gift only to find your reciprocal gift consists of one of those beauty box sets that stuff the shelves of high-street chemists from September and shriek ‘I have no imagination’ or, worse, ‘You need a good wash’?  Whatever you buy older kids will be wrong, and younger ones normally prefer the box it came in anyway.

This is not to say I won’t get stressed about Christmas at all, but probably not until the day itself when there isn’t enough room in the oven for the turkey and I can’t get into the kitchen for the champagne because it’s too crowded with one husband, one mother and one mother-in-law cooking the Christmas lunch (as a vegetarian, I steer well clear).

However, the trauma of Christmas and the threat of a dismal and depressing January is enough to send many over the edge.  This year I haven’t yet seen the predictable study explaining that December is the month couples argue the most and January sees a spike in the numbers of people seeking advice about divorce and separation, but expect it soon. 

For once, the government appears to be ahead of the game.  At the end of November it launched a web app, ‘Sorting out Separation’, providing free advice and guidance on all aspects of separation, including coping with the emotional impact of a break up, accessing legal or housing support and arranging child maintenance. 

It is not just the December/January relationship breakdown explosion that makes the launch of the app seem fortuitous.  Come April, when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) comes into force, warring couples are going to find it much harder to access advice of any sort, even if they don’t want a lawyer.

LASPO removes all but a few family law cases (those involving domestic violence) from the scope of legal aid, which is bad enough if your partner is not playing ball and can afford their own lawyer when you can't.  But severely cutting the amount of legal aid available also means many advice and law centres will close.  Some have already shut their doors or are not taking on new cases.

It does make the work and pensions minister Steve Webb look somewhat disingenuous when he says the impetus for the app was that ‘parents tell us they don’t know where to turn for support when they are going through a separation…it’s vital we help parents to access better advice’.  I am not sure an app is going to be the first stop for many in the midst of a difficult break up and it hardly seems a substitute for face-to-face advice. 

Thankfully I haven’t ever been divorced and I haven’t managed to find the app on the web, so maybe I am not the best person to comment on how helpful or not it would be in the throes of separation, but I am prepared to stick my neck out and suggest this particular government initiative is but a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

It is not that a divorce app isn’t a good idea, but is it really the government’s job to spend £300,000 on an elaborate signpost, particularly when some of the paths it points to may only lead to dead ends unless you have a large bank account?  Having said that, many who know far more about these things than I do have started using the app, including Relate, National Family Mediation, Mumsnet,, Gransnet and Wikivorce.

The app is, apparently, ‘designed for the DIY enthusiast’ but promotes mediation and collaborative law as ‘the way forward’.  I am not sure there are too many ‘DIY enthusiasts’ out there, particularly in such an emotionally charged area.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that if self-representation is ever a good idea (it’s not) it probably isn’t when it comes to divorce.

As for promoting mediation, a cynic might say this isn’t actually necessary when it is the only option if you can’t afford a lawyer.  Obviously mediation is a good thing - when it works it is much quicker and cheaper than dragging a case to court.  But many separating couples don’t have anything like the sort of relationship that enables them to sit round a table and work things out themselves, with or without mediation.  I can't see an app being much help to them.

The government has high hopes that the app will save money by encouraging couples to resolve disputes and sort out their finances rather than relying on the Child Support Agency. If its plans for saving money from the legal aid bill are anything to go by, expect the CSA to be wound up completely sometime soon.

In the face of all this, it really isn’t worth letting Christmas getting you down.  And if you’re stuck for that perfect gift, maybe a gift voucher for the app store might do the trick?

Posted in: Family law

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