Divorced couples given wrong settlements by official government form

Here’s an interesting case study about why it’s sometimes best not to trust technology. As someone who has, on occasion, had to navigate his way through the self assessment tax form, I can tell you that having a machine give you the right answers is a godsend. Life’s just too short and pretty much any activity imaginable is preferable to the government’s own flavour of bureaucratic purgatory.

This is doubly true – I’d imagine – when you’re dealing with something as emotionally devastating as divorce proceedings. Just fill out the form online, get it done and move on with your life. Unfortunately, if that was you in the last two years, there’s a good chance the sums were wrong, and your settlement was equally wrong to match.

It all comes down to Form E, which calculates divorce settlements for couples looking to separate. The error seems to spring from the form’s failure to subtract financial liabilities from asset calculations, which potentially led to settlements that were substantially higher than they should have been. Just under 20,000 people downloaded it while it was broken.

Of course, downloading a form and using it are two different things, and it doesn’t affect those who printed it out and filled it in by hand, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to how many people are affected – especially as not every divorcing couple will have debts that would trip the form up. There are over 100,000 divorces in England and Wales each year, so the numbers reflected here are relatively small fry.divorce_form_mistake_

It’s tempting to purely put the blame for this at the feet of the government’s IT system, but as family law specialist Nicola Matheson-Durrant told The Guardian, there are plenty of legal experts who should have raised the alarm before she did: “Having discovered the fault and advised the MoJ, it became apparent that not a single solicitor, barrister or judge in the whole of the UK had noticed this error,” she said.  “It is such a critical fault. This form has been used in training so it will also have been seen by paralegals, university law departments and the Law Society.”

So what happens now? It depends on the collective attitude of those affected by the blunder. Some may be inclined to try and reclaim the money from their exes, if they still have it – or even take legal action against their own lawyers or the Ministry of Justice. Others might decide that, having put themselves through the emotional wringer once, they’d prefer a quiet life and to write it off.

As for the Ministry of Justice, for now they’re just trying to get a handle on the numbers involved. A spokesperson from HM Court and Tribunal Service said: “We are urgently investigating this issue. Officials are taking steps to identify rapidly cases where this regrettable error may have had an impact, and we will be writing to anyone affected as soon as possible. Anyone concerned about their own court proceedings should [email protected].

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