Judge overturns fraudulent divorces
The country's leading family judge has overturned scores of divorces obtained in the English courts by fraud.
Sir James Munby, President of the High Court's Family Division, said a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice had been carried out "on an almost industrial scale".
It related to 180 cases where one half of an Italian married couple presented a petition for divorce to the English court.
In every instance it was asserted that the English court had jurisdiction to entertain the petition, on the basis that either the petitioner or respondent was habitually resident in England and Wales.
In 179 cases the address given for either the petitioner or respondent was Flat 201, 5 High Street, Maidenhead - which turned out to be a mail box in commercial premises.
Sir James said: "Indeed, given the dimensions of the mail box it is clear that not even a single individual, however small, could possibly reside in it."
He added: "In short, it is clear beyond any sensible argument that in each of these 179 cases the assertion that the English court had jurisdiction to entertain the petition was founded on a lie, the lie that either the petitioner or, in some cases the respondent, resided at Flat 201.
"To put it plainly, the English court was deceived; the English court was induced by fraud to accept that it had jurisdiction to entertain the petition."
The divorce petitions were issued on a variety of dates between August 2010 and February 2012 inclusive, apart from one which was presented to Barnsley County Court on July 20, 2012 and issued on July 27 that year.
Sir James said: "They were presented to and issued in a huge number of different county courts - 137 in all - ranging alphabetically from Aldershot to York and geographically across the length and breadth of England and Wales, from Truro in south-west England to Canterbury in south-east England, Haverfordwest in south-west Wales, Llangefni in north-west Wales, Carlisle in north-west England and Newcastle in north-east England."
He said the problem was first identified in late February 2012 by an "eagle-eyed" member of the court staff at Burnley County Court, Julie Farrah, "who spotted that in two files, both involving Italian parties, the address was the same and that it was in Maidenhead, which is in the south of England, whereas Burnley is in the north-west".
Catherine Jones, the head of family law at JMW Solicitors, said the case highlighted how divorce in England and Wales was envied across the world.
She added: "It's not about this country being the destination for divorce tourism but because of the speed and relative ease by which individuals can end their marriages here.
"The manner of divorce which has been in place in England and Wales since the 1970s is quicker and cheaper than anywhere else in the world with, perhaps, the exception of the Dominican Republic or Las Vegas.
"In Italy, it can take more than three years from the start of a divorce until the finish and, it would appear, that might be too long for a considerable number of people.
"Due to the fact that courts in Italy and elsewhere will recognise a British divorce, I would suggest that this is possibly a broader European problem which will need to be addressed."
The judge's ruling today followed successful applications in relation to "180 irregular divorces" brought by the Queen's Proctor.
Sir James explained that the applications were for him "to dismiss a large number of divorce petitions and also, in many of the cases, to set aside decrees of divorce - some nisi, some absolute - obtained in consequence of what can only be described as a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice on an almost industrial scale".
Announcing his decision, Sir James said: "The Queen's Proctor's case is essentially that in each of these cases the proceedings were fraudulent from beginning to end and, in particular, that each of the decrees, whether a decree nisi or a decree absolute, was procured by fraud."
He ruled that all 180 petitions should be dismissed and the decrees set aside "as being void for fraud".