A “conspiracy to pervert the course of justice on an almost industrial scale”. This is not the usual phrase to be found in the opening paragraph of a family law judgment, but then the case of Rapisarda v Colladon was not a usual case. It is quite a story, and one that reveals a fair amount about the workings of the family courts in this country.
First we need to introduce you to the Queen’s Proctor (or King’s Proctor in times of male monarchs). This is the person who represents the Crown in the probate and divorce courts. The Queen’s Proctor may intervene in a divorce suit for the purpose of arguing any question that the court deems expedient, including arguing against a decree nisi being made absolute. He (or she) is most usually involved on receipt of information suggesting that the court has been misled into granting a decree, as was the case here. The issues first came to light earlier this year when the question of whether the saga could be made public was answered in the positive by the President of the Family Division, and the judgment was finally released last week.
In February 2012 an eagle eyed member of court staff at Burnley County Court spotted that two divorces, both involving Italian parties, referred to the same address in Maidenhead, Berkshire. The situation was unusual enough for her to raise the issue with the judge, who thought it was worthy of a little further investigation. When the court looked into it, the address turned out to be a mailbox at a business premises rather than a residential property, and the police became involved.
The police investigation revealed that 179 divorce petitions had been issued in 137 different courts right across the country all using that same address in Maidenhead, with one further petition using a different address. A firm of solicitors in Reading had been unwittingly drawn into the case as their name was used without their knowledge on the affidavits apparently sworn in support of the 180 petitions. It was clear that nobody lived at the mailbox address, meaning the basis of the English court’s jurisdiction over these Italian nationals could not be proven.
The Queen’s Proctor argued that in all 180 cases the divorce proceedings were fraudulent from beginning to end. He argued that each of the divorce decrees, whether nisi or absolute, had been procured by fraudulently claiming that one party or the other was resident in England and Wales when this was not the case, and forging the paperwork.
Behind all these dodgy divorces was someone calling herself Dr Frederica Russo, whom it seemed was attempting to procure English divorces for Italian clients on the false basis of one or other party living here (at the mailbox in Maidenhead). She charged a minimum of €3,750 per couple. The paperwork was either forged or amounted to perjury, with fake affidavits and lies about residence.
In all 180 cases neither party was habitually resident in England, so the court had no jurisdiction to entertain any of the petitions. Where decrees had been pronounced, they had been obtained by fraud perpetrated on the court. So, the President dismissed the petitions which had been presented to court but not yet reached decree nisi stage. In the cases where there had been a decree nisi or a decree absolute pronounced, the decrees were set aside as being void for fraud. This left all 180 couples still married. He made it clear that the fact that one or both parties may have remarried, or even subsequently had a child (as had happened in one case) made no difference to his decision. This leaves some of them in quite a fix.
All of the petitions were based on the parties having apparently been separated for two years and with them both consenting to the divorce. Although not clear from the judgement it seems that the reason for all these Italian couples wanting to use the English courts to obtain a divorce is the requirement under Italian law for a couple to have been separated for 3 years before they can divorce. Also a divorce validly obtained in one country will be recognised in another, so an English divorce is just as effective in Italy as an Italian one, as long as it has been properly obtained.
One of the reasons why the conspiracy was able to go on for so long without being detected is that a petition can be filed in any divorce county court (now the family court) irrespective of the address of either party. So “Dr Russo” spread the divorce petitions widely across a large number of courts, all of whom seemed to have jurisdiction to accept them. There is presently no legal reason why someone living in Maidenhead cannot issue a petition in Llandudno. However, it seems that this facility will soon be curtailed. Handling of divorce petitions will soon be centralised and to quote from the judgment “by this time next year there will be fewer than twenty, possibly as few as a dozen, places at which a divorce petition can be issued.” So one hopes that the courts will not be subject to anything similar in future.
If you would like to talk to us about any aspect of family law, please give us a ring on 01223 443333 to make an appointment to see Gail, Sue, Simon or Adam (or, from next month, Tricia).