The average divorce in the United States takes about a year to complete. As long as this might seem, this length is fairly agreeable when compared to proceedings in nations like Italy, where a divorce can take as long as three years to obtain. This long wait appears to be the reason over 170 Italian couples hired two con artists to submit false paperwork in the UK, allowing them to obtain a divorce in a matter of months.
To perpetuate the scam, two Italians set up an agency offering fast divorces for unhappy couples in their home country. Using a number of mailboxes scattered throughout England and Wales, the fraudsters would file paperwork for their clients using false addresses. The divorces, which are believed to have been granted between August 2010 and February 2012, are believed to have netted over £500,000 and fooled judges at 137 county courts. The scam was eventually discovered by an office worker who questioned why two Italians with the same address in Maidenhead, Berkshire were filing for their divorces more than 200 miles away in Lancashire. Later investigations revealed that a total of 179 Italians had applied for a divorce from the same address.
In every case, couples had signed English legal forms which stated that they lived at the address and had been separated for more than two years, in accordance with English law. After the paperwork was approved by the courts, the divorce was then considered valid in Italy. However, a judge affiliated with the case stated that none of the couples appeared to have ever lived in the UK, and many had been separated for much shorter periods. Instead, separated couples were reportedly charged £3,000 to £4,000 in exchange for the fraudulent service.
Divorce is an increasingly common process around the world: in the United States, for example, the average age of a man seeking his first divorce is 30.5, while the average woman is 29. However, with the possible exceptions of the Dominican Republic or Las Vegas, the divorce process in England and Wales is reportedly cheaper than anywhere else in the world; applicants are allowed to apply for divorce at a county court anywhere in the country. These qualities, unfortunately, are exactly what made the fraud attractive and possible: none of the 137 courts targeted in the scam cross-checked the addresses. In response, many family lawyers have questioned whether similar cons from other foreign countries might be taking place in the UK, and criticized the country’s legal system for being overloaded with cases. Meanwhile, some Italian legal experts have expressed concern that this incident might give genuine UK residents from Italy a bad name.
While the perpetrators of the scam have not been caught, their services could cause significant repercussions for the Italian divorcees: 179 divorces have already been annulled, and legal experts warn that any of the fraudsters’ customers who remarried could be charged with bigamy. In Italy, this crime can lead to up to five years in prison and additional fraud allegations. In response, some of the defendants’ lawyers have claimed that their clients were unaware that only UK residents were eligible for the country’s quick divorces.
Divorce in the relatively conservative and highly Catholic country has only been legal since 1979. However, in light of the case, the Italian parliament’s Justice Commission has reportedly introduced proposals for quicker divorces. Under the new requirements, separation periods would be reduced to six months for consensual divorces and 12 months for contested separations. The lower parliamentary house has already approved the plans, meaning that with help from the Senate, the changes could be law by the end of the year. But despite complaints about Italy’s convoluted legal system, traditional perspectives are stirring up controversy: L’Avvenire, the daily newspaper of a conservative religious organization, has already published pieces denouncing what it called “do-it-yourself” divorces being promoted by more liberal Italians.