Thousands of divorce settlements affected by English courts' software error
Parties in a divorce use the form to disclose information about their assets and liabilities. It is downloaded from HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) website, and contains code that automatically calculates the appropriate financial settlement from each spouse's net assets.
However, the version of the form supplied between April 2011 and January 2012, and again between April 2014 and December 2015, failed to deduct liabilities from gross assets. Thus in some cases it created an overly generous award against a spouse who had significant assets but also large debts.
The bug was reported to the Ministry of Justice by a family lawyer, Nicola Matheson-Durrant, in December last year. HMCTS quickly replaced it with a corrected version, but by that time thousands of couples had used the form to calculate their settlements.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Shailesh Vara, revealed the extent of the damage in a written statement to parliament.
In his statement he explained that some 36,527 couples filed a Form E during the periods in question. About 10 per cent (3,638) of these files contained errors due to the faulty software. Of these affected cases 1,403 are still live in the courts, so that the errors can be corrected before the financial settlement is fixed.
However, that leaves 2,235 cases that have already been closed. In his statement Vara explained that although the faulty form was used in these cases, it will not necessarily have had any effect on the ultimate outcome, but in some cases there remains a possibility that the error would have resulted in a settlement based on wrong calculations. HMCTS is now writing to all parties in these closed cases, notifying the recipients that they can apply to court to vary or set aside their settlements. Those who choose to do this will not be charged a court fee for the hearing. The Solicitors Journal highlights, however, that people who have been affected will need legal advice and legal aid is no longer available to them.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Justice has apologised and is 'considering the future of Form E'. Its automatic calculator function is to be disabled while the review is carried out.
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