The president of the Family Division has called for tighter restrictions on divorce petitions after 179 Italian divorce applications were made using the same UK mailbox address.

Sir James Munby set aside a total of 180 divorce petitions - one was made from a separate mailbox address - issued fraudulently from Italy in 137 different county courts across England and Wales.

The problem was first picked up by a member of court staff at Burnley County Court, Lancashire, who spotted that two files, both involving Italian parties, had listed the same address in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

The address had been provided as proof that petitioners had lived for at least a year in England and Wales and could come under its jurisdiction. However a subsequent search of the address, Flat 201, found it to be a PO box service.

Proceedings for all 180 applications were dismissed, despite a decree absolute being declared in more than half.

In a judgment published today, Munby said each decree must be set aside as being 'void for fraud'. He said the underlying petition must be dismissed, irrespective of whether any party had remarried or had a child in another relationship.

Munby described the scheme as 'conspiracy to pervert the course of justice on an almost industrial scale'. He said the fraud had been facilitated by rules allowing a petition to be presented to any divorce county court in England and Wales.

The effect was that this 'fraudulent conspiracy' was allowed to go on for two years.

Munby said plans for HM Courts and Tribunals Service to centralise the handling of divorce petitions to fewer than 20 courts should help to combat fraud, but he warned this alone would 'probably not be enough' to prevent it completely.

Munby suggested the petition for divorce and, in special procedure case, the notice of application for decree nisi should require the completion of a 'statement of truth'. This should be specifically placed next to a warning of the penalties for untruth.

He also recommended that part of the process for issuing a divorce petition include an online search to check if the same address has been used in other proceedings.

Munby said the affidavit in some of the cases purported to have been sworn by the petition before a solicitor - with the name and addresses given of a law firm in Reading.

This firm was found to exist, but Thames Valley Police said its name was used falsely without the knowledge of anyone at the firm.

Police investigations are ongoing but were not deemed likely to be affected by the intervention of the Queens's Proctor, the person who applied to have the divorce petitions dismissed.

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