Just like a teacher catching school children copying each other’s papers in an exam, one judge sitting in Bury St Edmund’s Divorce Centre (the court which now deals with most of the divorce petitions in England) spotted that the allegations of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ in 28 different petitions about 28 different marriages were not only remarkably similar, but were verbatim identical. This raised some eyebrows and the judge’s referral up the judicial chain led to the case of The Marriage of Gia Celine-Shelby and Alfie David Yorston and 27 other related cases and iDivorces (an interested party), heard by Mr Justice Moor on 10 September 2021 and just reported.
The petitions of these 28 marriages said nothing remarkable or noticeable, but each one contained exactly the same sentences about the respondent spouse’s behaviour, such as ‘For about a year prior to the separation the respondent would become moody without justification and argumentative towards the petitioner’ and .. [this] ‘would cause a lot of tension within the home thereby making the petitioner’s life very uncomfortable.’ And so on. As Mr Justice Moor said in his judgment, no judge (or family lawyer) would bat an eyelid about this sort of thing. Unless they saw the same phrases again and again and again.
A company called iDivorce had a system which sent its customers a proforma petition, already completed with general, vague examples of the other spouse’s supposed ‘unreasonable behaviour’ which the customers could amend if they wanted (but none of these had). The director of the company apologised in court and has managed to avoid (somewhat narrowly) a referral to the CPS.
As family lawyers, we often describe the divorce petition as a bit of a tick box exercise. It is an important document, of course. It starts the legal undoing of a marriage. But for a long time, the hoops a petitioner has to jump through have been outdated. Unless the couple has been separated for 2 years, one of them has to blame the other party – either because they have committed adultery, or because the other has ‘behaved in such a way that it would be unreasonable for the petitioner to continue to live with them’ (otherwise known as ‘unreasonable behaviour’).
That is all about to change with the introduction, at last, of ‘No-fault divorce’ in April 2022, which will herald a new era in which family lawyers don’t need to help clients think about unreasonable things their spouse has done at a time when we are trying also to progress constructively, and the respondent doesn’t always need to feel criticised from the get go. Rarely does a petition actually outline the real and complex reasons for a marriage breakdown. And however mild and anodyne the examples of someone’s behaviour are crafted (and following the case of Tini Owens in July 2018, they can’t be too mild or anodyne), no one likes to read a series of criticisms about themselves.
That is all shortly to be redundant, thank goodness. And following this case, the start of ‘No-fault divorce’ proceedings will be welcomed not only by family practitioners and their clients, but also, presumably, by iDivorce.