Britain's top family judge has been asked to cancel 180 divorces after being told the UK courts have been exploited in a massive “fraud” by Italians seeking a quick end to their marriages.
The couples from the devoutly Catholic country have assumed fake British residency in order to use the UK justice system to split up, avoiding the lengthy and costly Italian divorce process.
Court officials spotted the scam after realising that in 179 of the cases, one of the divorcing parties had given the same home address in the High Street, Maidenhead, Berks, which was not a residential property but the home of a post box.
Sitting in the High Court on Wednesday, Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, was asked to overturn the decrees nisi and decrees absolute which have been granted in all 180 cases.
Italian couples face a mandatory three-year legal separation period, but can circumvent this using European Union legislation that recognizes divorces granted in any member state.
After obtaining foreign residency, they can in most cases file for divorce after six months, with Romania, in particular, reportedly becoming a destination of choice for Italian divorce tourists. But it is illegal to use a bogus residency for these purposes.
Simon Murray, for the Queen's Proctor - the lawyer who represents the Crown if intervention is needed in divorce cases - told Sir James that the UK had been targeted, saying: “It seems that this was, as expected, a fraud.
“Italian couples were charged some 4,000 euros in each case for a fast-track divorce, with a Post Office office box in Maidenhead being used to establish residency. The decrees should be rescinded.
“It is a requirement of the Law of England and Wales that a person seeking a divorce in the English and Welsh Courts has been habitually resident in England for a period of at least one year immediately before issuing a petition of divorce, or that the respondent was habitually resident within the jurisdiction.
“The English and Welsh Courts have no jurisdiction to consider divorce applications by parties who are both resident abroad. It has come to the attention of the Queen's Proctor, whose role is to protect the integrity of the divorce process, that 180 petitions for divorce, involving Italian residents, have been advanced on a false basis.”
In the 180th case the individual asking for a divorce claimed to live in Epsom, Surrey, while in all the cases the spouses being divorced claimed to live in Italy.
Mr Murray said: “On the facts currently available, it appears that residence requirements were not met in any of the said 180 petitions. If this is so, the Queen's Proctor submits that the court had no jurisdiction to entertain the proceedings and, that being so, all of the certificates and decrees made in those proceedings should be rescinded and each of the petitions dismissed.”
The barrister claimed that 178 out of the180 couples had agreed not to oppose their divorces being annulled after being contacted.
He also told the judge that a representative of the Italian government was in court to observe proceedings with the Thames Valley police.
The High Court hearing continues.