It was reported in the news on 30th September 2014 that 180 divorces obtained by Italian nationals in the English Courts had been declared null and void. A firm based in Italy had been offering Italians a “quickie” divorce in this country to avoid having to wait the three year separation period required by Italian divorce law. The firm had been charging couples between £2,900 and £3,700 for an English divorce.
The reason that the divorces are not valid is because the couples did not have a sufficient connection with this country. International law does not allow people to choose any country in which to get divorced. In order for the English court to have jurisdiction, one or both parties must fulfil certain requirements, most of which relate to country of residence. The rules on divorce jurisdiction are set out in European legislation and are uniform across EU countries. They are that:-
- both parties are habitually resident in England and Wales; or
- both parties were habitually resident England and Wales and one of them still lives England and Wales;
- the respondent (not the person who starts the divorce) is habitually resident England and Wales;
- the person who starts the divorce is habitually resident England and Wales and has lived England and Wales for at least a year immediately before starting the divorce application;
- the person who starts the divorce is a national of that country (or for the UK and Ireland “domiciled” England and Wales) and is habitually resident England and Wales and has lived England and Wales for at least six months immediately before starting the divorce application; or
- both parties are a national of that country (or for the UK and Ireland have their “domicile” England and Wales).
Some couples will fulfil the jurisdiction requirements for more than one country. In these circumstances it is the country where the divorce proceedings are commenced which is first ‘seized’ of jurisdiction. This can be extremely important in cases where there are significant assets as the law on finance and property claims arising out of divorce vary hugely between different legal jurisdictions.
The fraudsters were clever about covering their tracks as they made sure that the papers were sent to many different divorce courts around England and Wales. The fraud only came to light when a member of staff at the court in Burnley noted that on two divorce petitions the same address was given for all the parties. In the end it was discovered that this one address in Berkshire actually appeared on 179 divorce petitions.
From a divorce lawyer’s perspective this case is very interesting. For the poor couples who were ripped off by the fraudsters they are now left in a situation in which they are still married to their exes. This means any remarriage they have entered into will also be invalid and any children with their new ‘spouse’ will be deemed to have been born ‘out of wedlock’.