At the end of 2015, it was widely reported that a software fault in the Form E on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) website could have affected thousands of people. The Form E is used in financial remedy cases and sets out the financial position of divorcing spouses. The fault in question was an error in the calculation at paragraph 2.20. The error means that the calculation fails to take into account the debts and liabilities entered earlier on in the form potentially leading to an inflated statement of a person’s total assets.
The MoJ issued a public apology for the error which has been present on it’s website since April 2014. Michael Gove has also apologised for the error whilst speaking on the World at One on BBC Radio 4. But are the implications quite as widespread as the media would have us believe?
The Guardian reported that Nicola Matheson-Durrant, a McKenzie Friend, spotted the error and alerted the MoJ. She told the newspaper “Having discovered the fault and advised the MoJ it became apparent that not a single solicitor, barrister or judge in the whole of the UK had noticed this error. It is such a critical fault.”
In defence of the entire family law legal profession the reason the fault was not picked up sooner was that most solicitors do not actually use the version of the form on the MoJ website. Solicitors tend to use bespoke software packages which have their own data bases of legal forms. In any event solicitors, barristers and judges do not rely on the forms alone. The forms are the starting point with figures being entered into spreadsheets so that all of the figures are in one place rather than spread across 40 pages of a form. A direct comparison can then be created of the figures from both parties’ forms. The chances of an entire settlement being based on the total figure calculated by one paragraph on the Form E are remote.
Litigants in person are again likely to be the worst effected as there are unlikely to have been any spreadsheets created, detailed comparisons made or further calculations carried out in order to produce the figures on which a financial settlement is ultimately based. However even in these cases it is worth bearing in mind that the Form E is just one piece of the puzzle. It is rarely used as a standalone document for a judge when reaching a decision.
The MoJ is going to contact those affected and has set up an email address for people concerned that they may have been affected by the software error – formE@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk.
Kelly Christodoulou, Family Law team.