In an earlier blog I commented on the case of M-v-P in which Sir James Munby, formerly President of the Family Division, considered whether a divorce should be declared void and set aside retrospectively, where there had been a mistake at the court office.
Since then he has published another judgment, which concerns four other faulty divorces. In each of these cases the petitioner sent the divorce petition to the court office before a full year had elapsed after the date of marriage, which is not permitted by the rules.
Nevertheless in each case the divorce went through the court, a decree absolute was issued and some of the people concerned had gone on to re-marry. In each case the divorce was identified as void and set aside retrospectively. Obviously that has caused a great deal of personal distress, and all sorts of practical problems for those involved, and for their families.
One of the cases illustrates the point particularly clearly. They were married on 27 July 2014. The husband sent a divorce petition to the court on 17 June 2015, but dated it 27 July 2015. The court staff spotted this, and wrote back saying that on this occasion they would “hold” the petition until 28 July 2015. They did that and the petition was marked as “issued” on 6 August. The divorce went through and a decree absolute was pronounced on 23 February 2016.
But the problem came to light later on. The rule, which is to be found at s3 Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, says “No petition for divorce shall be presented to the court before the expiration year from the date of the marriage”. In simple terms that means the petition can’t reach the court office until the day after the first wedding anniversary. So Sir James found, somewhat reluctantly, that the divorce was void and had to be set aside. He was critical of the Court Service for centralising divorces into a few Regional Divorce Centres – not a bad idea in itself, but the regional centres are so short-staffed that mistakes get made.
The moral of the story is this. It must be tempting to present your own divorce petition to save a few hundred pounds in legal fees, because the procedure seems fairly straightforward and plenty of guidance is available on the internet including on my website.
If you muddle through and get a decree of divorce then everything seems fine, and for thousands of people that is probably true. But for a few problems come to light years later, with disastrous consequences, which cannot be put right retrospectively.
The Court Service plans to digitalise divorce procedure later this year and, hopefully, the new system will not allow this sort of thing to happen. At least in theory. But everyone who has been involved in the implementation of a new computer system knows that it takes time to get it right, so even then you would be wise to use an experienced solicitor who knows what s/he is doing.
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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.