The business of divorce: how to ensure the lawyers don’t win

Caroline Elliott, family law partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, (pictured) has some advice for divorcing couples.

It goes without saying that going through a divorce can be an emotional experience. However, with many people unaware of how solicitor’s fees are calculated or about the existence of cost-effective alternatives to litigation, it can also quickly become a significant financial strain. While pressing ahead without legal representation is often not a viable option, there are several steps that those undergoing a separation can take to avoid any nasty shocks relating to legal fees and the risk of incurring excessive court costs.

The initial stages of a divorce, which require the solicitor to develop a thorough understanding of their client’s situation, can often prove particularly costly. During this period of ‘fact-finding’, there can be a tendency for large numbers of calls and emails to be exchanged as well as an urge for the person undergoing a separation to simply ‘get things off their chest’. With most lawyers charging an hourly rate, this correspondence can rack up an unexpectedly large bill for their client, adding to the inevitable stress of the divorce process.

When seeking legal representation, it is a common misconception that a more expensive solicitor will be better able to secure their client a satisfactory result. In reality, spending a large sum on solicitor’s fees will simply detract from the overall assets available to the divorcing parties. Instead, those navigating a divorce should focus on engaging a solicitor with a firm and straightforward approach who specialises in family law. Getting legal advice early is also essential in order to ensure a fair and representative division of assets, whilst avoiding incurring any costly delays in the court system, which is discretionary and unstructured by nature.

In order to stop legal costs from spiralling out of control during a divorce, it is also important to use time with a solicitor wisely. While it may at first seem sensible for all forms and other paperwork to be completed by a lawyer, in reality such administrative tasks are often highly time-consuming and can be undertaken just as effectively by the client. A more cost-effective approach is to request the solicitor’s input to review paperwork once a client has spent time filling in the key facts of their case themselves.

As well as working strategically with a solicitor to ensure high costs are not incurred unnecessarily, a range of alternative options to traditional court proceedings can help to keep legal bills down whilst ensuring a mutually-beneficial divorce agreement is reached. The first of these, mediation, involves the two divorcing parties meeting with a trained and independent mediator who encourages the couple to talk through their issues and guides discussion. Rather than offering legal advice, mediators provide impartial information about court processes and other aspects of divorce, helping parties to arrive at a satisfactory resolution.

Another option, family law arbitration, involves divorcing parties appointing a trained arbitrator, who makes a final and binding decision on any financial, property and some child-related issues arising from the relationship.

Finally, in collaborative law, both parties and their lawyers meet in an attempt to hold discussions and come to a resolution. As this method involves the parties signing an agreement not to go through the courts, it is important to bear in mind that any failed attempts to arrive at an agreement will require parties to appoint new legal representation and start the process again from scratch.

Whereas arbitration and traditional court proceedings involve parties adhering to a controlled and lengthy timetable, one additional advantage of mediation and collaborative law is the increased flexibility they can offer, as well as the ability for divorcing parties to reach their own agreement.

Whichever method of divorce a couple chooses, it is always wise to ask solicitors to provide interim bills with a full breakdown of costs, reducing the risk of unwelcome surprises when it comes to legal fees.

While undergoing a separation is never a pleasant experience, adopting a cost-effective approach to communications with a lawyer and researching alternatives to litigation in advance can help to keep legal costs under control, helping to ensure the divorce process is as smooth and stress-free as possible.

Caroline Elliott, family law partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

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