When Is A Divorce Not A Divorce
Published on 24 February, 2022 | James Brown
Earlier this month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) issued the latest divorce figures.
They showed that 103,592 couples brought their marriages to a close during 2020 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2020).
Just over 18,000 of those cases involved husbands or wives applying for divorce on the grounds that they had been who had been separated for more than five years from their spouses.
In some cases, they might have remained apart for that length of time because they didn’t want to blame their other halves for the breakdown of their relationships.
That scenario was, of course, partially behind the drafting of legislation allowing so-called’ no-fault’ divorce which became law in June 2020 and should come into force from the start of April (https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2524).
Even in such lengthy separations, there is quite often contact between spouses regarding the administration of divorce and the division of any joint marital assets.
It is highly unusual for a divorce to take place where one spouse is completely in the dark about it happening.
Yet that is precisely what has happened in a case involving a woman by the name of Kewal Randhawa.
She was married to her husband, Rachpal, for just over 30 years until they separated in 2009.
Mrs Randhawa was completely unaware until recently that she had actually been divorced in 2010 and that her husband had remarried the following year.
A Family Court judge has now decided to set aside that divorce on the basis that Mrs Randhawa’s signature had been forged “by or on behalf of” her husband (https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2022/B7.html).
The circumstances are unusual but, as I’ve been telling Catherine Baksi, one of the law reporters for The Times (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/09dbcf0e-927b-11ec-9aec-82f0032d4cd3?shareToken=ab6cf794a50660448f4afbc47e25187d), they may not necessarily be unique.
Divorce really is little different to many other types of administration which are open to abuse.
Under the purely paper-based system, a signature is required to acknowledge that a divorce petition has been served. However, the Randhawa cases illustrates that safeguard can be circumvented.
When someone submits a divorce petition via the online portal which was introduced in 2018, they are asked to provide both an e-mail and postal address for their husband or wife so that they can then be informed of their partner’s intention to end their marriage.
Nevertheless, someone could also deliberately supply false contact details if they wanted to.
Between January and September last year, there were 60,602 divorce petitions submitted online. In fact, they accounted for an average of 74 per cent across those three quarters of the year (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-july-to-september-2021/family-court-statistics-quarterly-july-to-september-2021#divorce).
I believe it’s unlikely that many of those divorces involve forgery of the sort uncovered in the Randhawa case.
Even so, we must accept that, just as this matter eventually came to light, there have been other examples of fraud detected in divorce in England and Wales in recent years, for instance, relating to deliberately inaccurate disclosure of marital or business assets.
I also feel that not even the new ‘no-fault’ legislation will eradicate forgery or divorce fraud altogether.
The system allows one spouse to petition on the grounds that their marriage has irretrievably broken down without setting out examples of their partner’s misconduct.
Yet, as I’ve said already, they could still provide false contact details to receive notice of and provide consent to that divorce.
It is a sad fact of life that if someone is determined enough to commit fraud, they will find a way.
There is perhaps comfort, though, that when evidence of such abuse of the system comes to light, the courts will not shy away from taking remedial action.