High Court Clamps Down on Standardised Online Divorce Petitions

The advent of so-called 'no fault' divorce is on the horizon but, until then, a great many divorce petitions will continue to be issued on the basis of unreasonable behaviour by one party or the other. As a High Court ruling underlined, the requirement to prove such behaviour is no empty formality.

The case concerned 28 divorce petitions that had been passed to the Court for consideration after a judge noticed that, in each case, the particulars of alleged unreasonable behaviour were couched in word-for-word identical terms. All the petitions had been drafted and filed by an online divorce advisory service.

Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that no fault divorce will for the first time become available when the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 comes into force in April 2022. In the meantime, however, the law was absolutely clear that the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage must be proved by evidence.

A director of the service apologised profusely to the Court for the use of standardised wording. He explained that the wording had been sent to petitioners who were asked if there was any part of the draft statement with which they disagreed. He believed that that practice was acceptable. However, it was tolerably clear that not one of the 28 petitioners had made any amendments to the standardised statements.

The Court observed that this was not a correct way to proceed. The petitioners were required to state their own particulars and to give a true account of the unreasonable behaviour alleged. It was not possible that 28 absolutely identical statements could all be true. In those circumstances, there was no alternative but to dismiss all of the petitions.

The Court considered referring the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions on the basis that the use of standardised statements could potentially amount to the crime of perverting the course of justice. Given the director's apology and explanation, however, the Court decided not to take that course. In the event of repetition, the Court warned that it would have no hesitation in making a referral.