Computer says no: British judge refuses to cancel divorce resulting from computer mistake

When a staffer at British law firm Vardags brought up the wrong computer file, it resulted in the wrong couple being granted an automated divorce. And now a judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has dismissed the company's application to reverse the error.

The firm's head Ayesha Vardag said the judge's decision effectively meant "the computer says no, you're divorced". … Lawyers for Mrs Williams argued that as the order had been made by mistake it should simply be "set aside", describing the error as someone at the firm simply "clicking the wrong button". … Judge McFarlane rejected the wife's arguments that the order should be set aside, finding it was not "rendered voidable" by her lack of consent as her solicitors were "generally authorised to act for her and the court was entitled to accept the application for the final order made by them as being validly made on her behalf".

This reminded me of the the UK Post Office scandal, where hundreds of postal workers were falsely convicted on the basis of computer mistakes. It's reported that the heart of the problem is a law requiring courts to assume that computers are always right (originally crafted to prevent drivers challenging the inaccurate readings of vintage police radars!) which creates all sorts of opportunities for the malicious and incompetent. Courts blindly accepted computer evidence, but when challenged they find themselves not responsible for having done so, and powerless to rectify the errors upon which earlier judgements were made. Which sounds very much like how Judge Jobsworth puts it here, in dismissing one of the various procedural options he was presented with:

"There was no apparent error made by the court and nothing on the face of the order to suggest, to use Mr Todd's phrase, that it did not reflect 'the court's intention'. The error here was in the making of the application, not the granting of the order."

McFarlane was recently in the news for ordering that Prince Philip's will be kept secret for 90 years to protect the Queen's "dignity". As he put it, "because of the constitutional position of the sovereign, it is appropriate to have a special practice." The law was quietened to the special interests of special people. In this case, though, he reaches an opposite outcome: law applied for the law's own sake without recourse to human needs such as justice, equity, or feeding an army of bastards.