Thousands of divorced couples in England and Wales could have received unfair settlements because of a newly discovered error in an online form.
The mistake appeared on Form E, a comprehensive financial statement which each party in a divorce must complete and submit to the family courts. The information it contains informs the court’s decision regarding a settlement.
However, the version available to download from the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) website has featured incorrect calculations of certain assets since last April. Paragraph 2.20 of the form establishes the value of a person’s assets and should subtract any liabilities they have. However, the online form did not take liabilities into account and, as a result, some people’s wealth was overestimated. The mistake was only spotted earlier this month and the MoJ finally acknowledged it this week.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, Stowe Family Law Managing Partner Julian Hawkhead said the MoJ form will have been primarily used by litigants in person, who will not have realised the mistake. Judges have missed it too, he added, as they often “don’t have time to look at the minutiae of the Form E”.
He suggested that in most divorce cases, a consent order will be made instead. This is a voluntary agreement between a former couple to finalise their financial obligations to one another going forward. When a consent order is made, Julian explained, “the Form E becomes redundant”.
It is thought that as many as 20,000 forms featuring the incorrect calculations were downloaded. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service released a statement which said they were “taking steps to identify rapidly cases where this regrettable error may have had an impact” and will contact those who have been affected.