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Divorced but still married? Make sure your petition is legally safe

The launch of Divorce Centres across England and Wales was hailed by the government as an important step towards streamlining the divorce process with claims that applications could be turned around in as little as 48 hours.

Now, there are fears that a number of newly divorced couples who submitted their petitions directly to one of these centres, may actually still be married because of mistakes made there by officials.

Sir James Munby, the country’s most senior divorce judge, has said the mishandling of these divorces – the exact number of couples affected is not yet known – could have a ‘potentially devastating impact’ on those concerned and has ordered the courts to apologise.

The errors have highlighted the importance for divorcing couples of taking legal advice to at least check that the petitions they are submitting do not breach time limits imposed by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

What went wrong?

The law says that no divorce can go through if the initial divorce application is handed in less than a year after the wedding. And couples who have separated cannot divorce until they have spent a set period of time apart – two years if they both agree on the divorce, five years if they don’t.

In this case, a number of couples were granted legal break-ups too quickly either because they submitted petitions before they had been married for the minimum period or because legal advisors in the divorce centres approved their divorce before they had been separated for long enough.

Implications

The mistakes mean that in some cases, not only are divorces null and void but some people may even have inadvertently committed bigamy if they went on to re-marry whilst not technically divorced.

Sir James Munby, who has referred some cases to the Queen’s Proctor to potentially dismiss or amend, said: “Judges will wish to be alert to the potentially devastating impact on litigants of being informed that there is a problem with their decree. Especially (and this is unlikely to be known to the court when the first communication is made) a litigant who believes they have been validly divorced has remarried or is due very shortly to remarry.

“Communications should accordingly be expressed in appropriately sympathetic and apologetic language.”

Background

In 2015, 11 divorce centres were set up across England and Wales to handle all divorce petitions and financial remedy applications.

Since then, all uncontested divorce petitions have been prepared and made ready for initial decree nisi consideration by a legal adviser based at these centres.

The divorce centre handling divorce petitions in the South West is in Southampton.

How Wards Solicitors can help

We have two different levels of fixed fee divorce package to ensure your divorce petition complies with current law.

  • Level 1: Includes checking through your divorce petition before submission;
  • Level 2: Includes drafting and issuing your petition as well as applying for your decree nisi and decree absolute.

We also offer a free half hour interview during which we can discuss your circumstances and needs including which of our funding options is the most suitable for you.

For legal help and advice about divorce, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Family Law and Divorce team by phone or by calling into one of our 11 local offices.

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