Judge refuses to Ctrl-Z divorce order made by a misclick

Computer says you're single

A simple misclick at a London law firm led to a surprise divorce for an unsuspecting couple.

An employee at Vardags, self-described specialists in high-net-worth marital breakdowns, opened the wrong file when applying for a divorce in His Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) online portal.

With a click more potent than Cupid's arrow, the solicitor "issued a final order of divorce in proceedings between Mrs Williams, the applicant wife, and Mr Williams," court papers [PDF] say.

The digital slip occurred on October 3, and thanks to the system's "now customary speed," as described by Judge Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, marital bonds were finally and totally severed in a mere 21 minutes, less time than most couples spend arguing over what to watch on Netflix.

When Vardags realized the blunder two days later, it scrambled to reverse the order. The application was made "without notice to the Husband's solicitors – the Wife's solicitors considered at the time that this was the correct approach given that the Final Order itself had been made without notice."

In the ensuing legal melee, Mr Williams, previously unaware of his sudden single status, received a letter sent by HMCTS the same day as the accidental divorce, stating that he was no longer married. But it was not until October 11, a week later, that he was formally informed of his bachelorhood by his ex-wife's solicitors. Meanwhile, his solicitors entered the fray, demanding that the case be brought before the President of the Family Division to sort out this matrimonial muddle.

As the courts attempted to untangle this knot, a directionless decree by Deputy District Judge Underhill seemed to resolve the issue by setting aside the divorce order. However, this order was marred by vague wording and questionable legality, leading to further disputes about whether Mr and Mrs Williams were indeed married or divorced.

Thus it was over to McFarlane, who agreed with the husband's lawyers that there was no authority for setting aside a decree absolute where there had been complete procedural regularity.

He ruled that it was "in the public interest that a final order of divorce should be unimpeachable when 'granted by a court with competent jurisdiction and after compliance with the correct procedural requirements'. A final order made without procedural irregularity should stand for all the world."

He further advised: "If the Wife has a remedy for what has occurred, it is through an action for negligence against her solicitors and not by seeking to set aside the final order."

Ayesha Vardag, head of the law firm, took issue with the ruling, reportedly telling the BBC that the judge's decision boiled down to "the computer says no, you're divorced."

She described the verdict as a "bad decision" and that the state "should not be divorcing people on the basis of a clerical error," insisting there has to be "intention" on the part of the person divorcing.

"When a mistake is brought to a court's attention, and everyone accepts that a mistake has been made, it obviously has to be undone," she said. ®

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