In a quite remarkable case 180 divorces have been annulled following massive fraud perpetrated against the English court system. An Italian lawyer was distributing quickie Italian divorces around the English legal system with one of the parties in each claiming to live at a PO box in Maidenhead. It’s a remarkable story that shows some English courts to be wide open to fraud due to their antiquated, opaque processes. And also that the courts do not have technology support sufficient to deliver their mission – modern open publication of data about a court’s case load and results would make courts more transparent, effective and secure.
Sir James Munby, President of the Family Decision in his judgement says:
‘The problem was first identified in late February 2012 by an eagle-eyed member of the court staff at Burnley County Court, Julie Farrah, who spotted that in two files, both involving Italian parties, the address was the same’
‘This is because in 179 of those cases one of the parties claimed in court documents to be resident at Flat 201, 5 High
Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire. Enquiries carried out by the authorities have established that that address given was not a
residential address at all but a PO Box service provider’s facility called “Mailbox”. It would therefore be impossible for
179 people (or any) to reside at that address.’
One would hope that Julie Farrah will receive a bonus this year, but it’s astonishing that there isn’t already some simple pattern recognition software running to spot this sort of thing. But instead as Munby rather pitifully points out right at the end of his fairly cataclysmic judgement:
‘The other is that part of the process in the court office for issuing a divorce petition should include a search of the court’s FamilyMan system to identify whether the address(es) given in the petition have been used in other cases. Each of these suggestions, it seems to me, merits careful consideration, though until such time as the court has up-to-date IT systems (which could no doubt be programmed to identify automatically any relevant addresses) I recognise that implementation of a standard search procedure will no doubt have resource implications.’
I sit on the Crime and Jsutice Sector Transparency Panel, where we have struggled for years to get the courts to open up their case load and judgements to the modern world of the internet. The publication of court results as open data now would allow others to see such patterns of fraud. Removing the need to wait for the woeful Ministry of Justice to provide new systems.
What’s striking here is overseas use of the English courts system. London is a massive centre for international legal services making a healthy contribution to the balance of payments – the reliability and probity of English courts are a great attraction. This astonishing episode shows to an international audience that important aspects of our courts are out of date and unreliable and will cause some to question whether a system that can be so easily defrauded, were it not for one eagle eyed clerk, is in fact a sensible place to transact legal business
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