An interesting and most unusual case came up over the summer. So, the facts. The husband and wife were married on 10 October 1987. On a date in 1994 the husband issued a petition for divorce in the Willesden County Court. The Decree Nisi was pronounced on 12 November 1996. The Decree was made Absolute on 29 January 1997.
In January 2018, the husband wished to take steps to remarry. However, he could not locate his copy of the Decree Absolute certificate. On 19 January 2018 he wrote to the Willesden County Court asking for a copy of the Decree Absolute as he wished to remarry. (You have to produce the Decree Absolute certificate to the Registrar when you set the date to be married). On 17 April 2018 the husband completed a formal application and paid a fee of £50. (Yes, that is how much it costs and there is a formal application form).
The court was not able to locate a copy of the Decree Absolute certificate, nor was it able to tell the husband the date on which the Decree Absolute was made. In particular, the court said:
- The original file appeared to have been totally destroyed in about 2013 notwithstanding that the agreed HMCTS record and retention policy is that the contents of divorce files are stripped and destroyed 18 years after the date of the final order (or resolution of any subsequent complaint) but that several key pieces of paperwork are retained longer, one of which is the Decree Absolute which is kept for an additional 82 years (thus ensuring it is kept for 100 years in total).
- A search for the original file in the TNT archive storage depot in Branston yielded no trace of it.
- The Office for National Statistics stated that they had checked their stores and all paper Decree Absolutes from 1997 had unfortunately been destroyed. Nor had they retained a microfiche copy of this Decree Absolute. (Microfiche is a really old way of keeping documents where the document is ‘printed’ onto a film).
- The Decree Absolute team at the Central Family Court was not, despite extensive searches, able to identify the Decree Absolute on the central index. It would appear that the original Decree Absolute was either never sent in early 1997 to Somerset House for entry on the index, or that it was lost in the post. (At that time, Somerset House was not an ice rink/tourist place but the main family court)
The Willesden County Court contacted the wife by email in Australia. She had moved there, by that time. She said she did not know if she had kept a copy of the Decree Absolute certificate. If she had, then it was in storage 1000 kilometres away from her in another part of Australia.
The Court Service arranged for the wife to travel to her storage facility and she discovered that she had retained a certified copy of the Decree Absolute certificate. So, all that was left was a copy marked as a proper copy by the court – but no original.
Why was the matter in front of a High Court judge? The High Court had to make a declaration to put the husband and wife as close as possible to the position they would have been in had the file not been destroyed and the original Decree Absolute lost. The court made a declaration that the husband and wife were divorced on 29 January 2017.
The date that the case was dealt with was 31 July 2019. The husband wanted to get married in January 2018. The husband had to wait 18 months to get the confirmation that he was divorced so he could get remarried. All because he had lost the original document. The lesson? Look after you paperwork. Oh and also, do not book the wedding venue unless you definitely have the right paperwork for the remarrying.