Could a single legal adviser be the pathway to a quicker, cheaper and less traumatic divorce?
We all know someone who has been through a toxic divorce, battling over children and finances in a legal system that seems designed to ratchet up confrontation and cost.
In my day to day practice, I rarely see divorcing couples walk away having spent less than six figures in costs. The process is terribly slow and adversarial and the emotional cost is enormous.
Ours is the UK’s first service to offer impartial legal advice to both parties at the same time in a bid to reduce conflict and take pressure off the overwhelmed family court system.
What happens at present is that if you are thinking of getting divorced, both partners within a couple appoint their own solicitors from day one. The two parties often give very different ‘takes’ on the facts to their respective solicitors and it can take several months for all that information to be exchanged and for everyone to see the true picture.
We are turning the current model on its head. If we know what’s really happening and what the financial picture is on day one, we can tell you how the court will view it and get the couple talking before they become entrenched in battle or develop unrealistic expectations.
For a fixed fee (in the region of £4,750 plus VAT) each couple has two meetings at the Temple chambers with a family law barrister; a brief introductory session held separately and then a joint advice session together to outline a realistic outcome, which is followed up with a detailed written advice. Typically, the process takes 6-8 weeks.
In fact it’s not new – single source legal advice is the norm in much of Europe, but in the UK solicitors are subject to conflict rules which bar them from advising both parties. Not so for barristers.
Evidently, it’s not for everyone. Couples need to be in agreement about their asset pool – the onus is on them to prepare their own financial disclosure after the first meeting. Any allegations of non-disclosure – or child safeguarding or abuse issues – and they are advised to instruct separate solicitors. Some 20 per cent fall away in the first (free) screening.
For the vast majority of clients, finances are the key concern, but child arrangements and parenting plans can also be considered at a separate session. Most important is that it’s not exacerbating conflict. The aim is to avoid going to court which is so difficult for families – couples fall out over money and they end up in a nuclear winter where every interaction from then onwards is subject to conflict.
So far, the meetings have proved surprisingly calm: The individual sessions are where people can vent if they need to. The joint sessions are quite civilised because the couples are there to get our legal expertise – it’s not an interactive process like mediation.
What also helps is when they hear the other party receive unwelcome advice. Divorce is always a compromise – it’s good to hear that they both have to give a bit. Ultimately, the sooner couples get to the answer, the sooner they can rebuild their lives on the other side of divorce.
About Samantha Woodham and Harry Gates
Samantha Woodham and Harry Gates are both family law barristers at 4 Paper Buildings. They are each recognised as leading individuals in both the Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners. Their private practices encompass both financial remedy and private law children work.
Alongside this they have set up The Divorce Surgery, a unique service which allows couples to obtain joint, impartial advice at any stage of the divorce process
The Divorce Surgery won the Best Client Service Innovation Award at the Lawyer Awards in June and the Best Client Management Innovation Award at the Legal Week Awards in May. It has been named by the Financial Times in the FT50 Most Innovative Law Firms in Europe.