Non-contested divorce cases taken out in Courts in England and Wales by 180 Italian couples have been declared void after a widespread fraud was discovered.
A firm in Italy was charging 3,750 to 4,700 euros (about £2,900 to £3,700) to arrange the divorces. The fraud ran between August 2010 and July 2012 and the divorce proceedings were issued in 137 different County Courts.
The fraud was discovered when a member of staff at Burnley County Court spotted the same address in two files involving Italian parties. In all but one of the cases, the accommodation address used was Flat 201, 5 High Street, Maidenhead. Upon investigation it became apparent that no one could have lived at this address as it was simply a mail box, the dimensions of which were too small for any individual to reside in.
Under Italian law couples have to live apart for at least three years before divorcing. In England and Wales couples who have been married for at least one year can issue divorce proceedings without such a wait (if the fact of adultery or unreasonable behaviour is alleged). A person seeking a divorce in the English and Welsh courts must have been habitually resident in England and Wales for a period of at least one year immediately before the issue of the petition, or the other party must have been habitually resident. Thus, by using the Maidenhead address, it was said that the English and Welsh Courts had jurisdiction to deal with the divorce proceedings.
Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, ruled that “a decree, whether nisi or absolute, will be void on the ground of fraud if the Court has been materially deceived, by perjury, forgery or otherwise, into accepting that it has jurisdiction to entertain the petition.” He was asked “to dismiss a large number of divorce petitions… obtained in consequence of what can only be described as conspiracy to pervert the course of justice on an almost industrial scale.” Accordingly, the decrees nisi and absolute were set aside as being void for fraud, and the petitions dismissed.
He made it clear that the fact that one or both parties may have remarried, or even had a child – as had happened in one case – made no difference to his decision.
If you would like more information about divorce proceedings or any related matter, please contact our Family team.