Online divorce fault may void 2,000 settlements

Topics: Family and children,Courts business,Government & politics

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The outcome of more than 2,000 divorce cases may have been voided by an error in the online form used to calculate financial settlements, an investigation into the fault has revealed.

In a written statement to parliament, justice minister Shailesh Vara MP (pictured) said that the financial assets of more than 3,600 couples were miscalculated due to the error in the self-assessment form on the Ministry of Justice website.

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Those involved in the 2,235 closed cases affected by the error may need to apply to court to reopen or renegotiate different divorce settlements, he said.

The error in the divorce form - Form E - was discovered at the end of last year but had been present on the Ministry of Justice website since at least April 2014. The error left debts out of its automated calculation of settlements.

Vara said: ‘The MoJ was alerted to the fault on 10 December 2015 and a corrected version of the form was put online on 14 December. However the wider implications of the faulty form were not immediately recognised.’

Whereas previously it was assumed the faulty formula was present only between April 2014 and December 2015, Vara revealed that the fault also affected cases between April 2011 and January 2012.

The investigation into the fault showed that of the 36,527 cases that used a version of the form, 10% (3,638) used the faulty calculator.

Vara said that HM Courts & Tribunal Service was able to intervene in 1,403 cases which were still live to make sure the error did not affect the final orders.

He added that the final outcome of the remaining closed cases will not necessarily have been affected by the error, as the form was only part of the material and the information provided by the form is often disputed or superseded by further information introduced during proceedings.

But Vara acknowledged that some may want to set aside or vary their order, and said that there would be no court fee for making such an application.

He said: ‘I have instructed HMCTS to write to all parties in the 2,235 closed cases. The letter expresses our sincere regret for the error, sets out what happened and explains that, although Form E is just one part of the evidence used in their case, there remains a possibility that the error affected the final outcome.’

Vara said that the MoJ is uploading a new version of the form setting out how the calculation of net assets should be made. The ministry will also consider the future of the form as part of its broader court reforms and the automatic calculator function will be disabled during this process.

He added: ‘The failure should not have happened. Divorce proceedings can be very difficult and I sincerely apologise for this situation and any distress it may have caused.’

Solicitor and family law arbitrator Tony Roe pointed out that it is more than a six weeks since the fault came to light, suggesting the review has taken more time and resources than was envisaged.

He added: ‘I am not sure why the minister says that the wider implications of the faulty form were not immediately recognised. It was obvious to specialist family lawyers.

‘Originally, justice secretary Michael Gove said up to 17,000 people might have been affected. That figure now announced is double that.’

He said: ‘Some 1,403 [of the 3,638] cases are still live, so hopefully the issue can be proactively dealt with. The remaining 2,235 files are closed – this is where the real problems could lie – and letters are being sent out to those individuals. Waiving any necessary court fee is one thing but these people will need specialist legal advice over a complex issue and there is no longer legal aid there for them. ‘

 

Readers' comments (18)

  • Whoever is responsible for this mess should be sacked without pay of pension. What a disaster!

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  • Good grief and they want us to all believe that the into ruction of yet MORE ONLINE systems are the way forward therefore by-passing the need for the involvement of man. Yeah Right!! Perhaps it might be sensible to get one SYSTEM WORKING PROPERLY, BEFORE YOU GO INTRODUCING and IMPLEMENTING yet ANOTHER....No?? duhhhh

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  • couldn't agree more-when will these meddling fools leave the business of law to the lawyers and the courts because this constant interference by not even gifted amateurs is merely creating confusion, uncertainty and greater expense to those engaged in the practice of law.

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  • Online systems are ok if they work properly are understood and are used properly.

    I'm just curious who's going to pay for the costs of each case that has to be re-opened.

    Or, do the solicitors involved now face negligence proceedings because they should have checked the figures were right in the first place. Poor buggers if they are at risk, but that's why you should never rely on technology.

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  • Anon @3.11 In most cases, this will affect litigants in person.

    Most family solicitors don't use the forms on the court website - we tend to have internal or subscription packages, so it is unlikely that many Forms E porepared by solicitors will have been affected.

    Speaking for myself, I don't rely solely on the formulae for calculations.

    I assume that most family practitioners are the same - for instance, I will generally have a spreadsheet of assets and liabilities and of course would normally be working in detail with the figures to advise my clients. By the time I get to thepoint of filling in a Form E, I generally have a pretty good idea of what the financial position is and any major discrepancy sticks out like a sore thumb.

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  • I agree with Anonymous 04-12 PM that I rarely if ever rely on the Form E summary and it would be lazy to do so.
    I also struggle to understand why the settlements reached or orders made would be "void" when body of the Form E should contain all relevant information in any event.

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  • Graham Wood is right. Surely someone should have seen the error straightaway.

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  • Hats off to the smart solicitor who spotted the error! Imagine if this catastrophe had been left to run over many more years?!?!?!

    Yes, or course, the buck stops with us, but on this occasion I would have thought that a full indemnity could be rightfully sought from the Lord Chancellor's office!

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  • I also agree with Graham Wood. Only the lazy rely on technology without applying an element of check. I suspect that the users will have claimed a fee commensurate with having done the job properly.

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  • I notice that MoJ are - rightly - passing no comment on the outcome of any application. What should it be?

    1. In the 2011 cases - leave things where they are, solicitors or no solicitors. It's far too late.

    2. In the 2014 cases the chips should also lie where they fall unless - perhaps - the party seeking to vary the order was not and the other party was represented. In any other case it cannot be fair to the (faultless) other party to change the order now.

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