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Thousands of divorce settlements potentially compromised

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.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Andrew says:

    So Party A wants to change the consent order and make it more favourable?

    Unless A can show that B knew about the error and kept quiet I cannot see that B can be prejudiced like that. It’s like a good faith valuation which turns out to be too high or too low. Too bad. The chips must lie where they fall.

    What do you think, Marilyn?

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Andrew
      Disagree. I think the error will have to be corrected. The problem will be actually doing that and or where the money has been spent.
      No idea how many people have been affected but if you use a lawyer they’re insured, but let’s see what happens here.
      So frustrating to see this happen to people who are trying DIY because they believe the spin that it’s the way to go or they can’t afford it, with abolition of legal aid.

      • Andrew says:

        Spent on a holiday, used for a deposit, spent on an annuity . . . effectively irrecoverable. Just too bad if the loser was in person.

      • Nordic says:

        Dear Marilyn,
        Are you saying that no solicitor, barrister or judge ever saw these faulty Form Es? That this form never came before a court? Otherwise, I completely fail to see how this accounting error can possibly be linked to legal aid. If the error was not caught by the legal industry, then how would more fees have helped?
        In any event, surely we (the tax payers) should not fund legal aid to tens of thousands divorcees so that thousands of lawyers can charge for checking the same form for basic accounting errors. Had the MoJ paid for a couple of hours of a qualified accountant to go through their form, this would not have happened. This is not a legal issue. It does not require family lawyers, which in my experience are not all that good with numbers in the first place. That is probably why the error was overlooked for months by everybody, including solicitors, barristers and, not least, judges.

  2. Andrew says:

    Let’s withhold further comment, Marilyn – This is headed for the Court of Appeal as sure as God made little apples, isn’t it?

  3. Andy says:

    Yet again here is an example where the law for divorce and your disclosure seem to be a tool via your E forms as guidance and to give a full and frank financial account.
    You beleive in completing the forms in the best possible way, time consuming and in depth disclosure.Now this raises and creates a rush of new claims for correct distribution of funds..who gets penalised financially and solicitors get paid more..
    and who gets the blame for this error you decide.

  4. Andrew says:

    Has anyone heard of any of these cases coming to court or was it all so much hot air?

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