This was the headline on the BBC News website on Friday, which may cause a certain amount of alarm amongst people who have reached divorce settlements at any time since April 2014 by using the Form E which appears on the Ministry of Justice’s website.
As graduates of the divorce process will know, Form E is the monolithic, 20 page document that couples are required to complete in order to provide full and frank disclosure of their financial means, including their property and business interests, bank accounts, pensions and income. The form also requires people to complete details of their debts, and that’s where the problem lies.
The Ministry of Justice’s Form E was disregarding people’s debts when calculating the total value of their assets. This means that in many cases a people’s assets will have been over-stated, and settlements agreed or orders made on the basis of information which is wrong.
The BBC reported that an HMCTS spokesman had said: “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 contact formE@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk.”
The good news from the point of view of clients of Paris Smith is that we do not use, and have never used, the Form E on the Ministry of Justice’s website. We use a form supported by a specialist legal IT provider, which is accessible only via our own systems and cannot be accessed via the internet. It is a form we have used for many years, updated as required, and which we find to be reliable and accurate. We are therefore 100% confident that our clients will not have suffered any loss through the error reported by the BBC.
The good news for everyone else is that, where lawyers are involved, agreements are rarely based on the automatic totalling contained in the Form E. Instead, separate schedules of assets and liabilities are prepared by the lawyers, using information from the Forms E, but calculated individually. Errors may perhaps have more impact when lawyers haven’t been involved.