Divorce and family finances

The damning report by the Legal Ombudsman for England and Wales about the cost and quality of legal services for people going through a divorce is food for thought for all lawyers who practice in this field.

Keeping legal costs down is critical as most families will find their resources stretched at this time as the costs of one household are split between two homes. The following tips can help the costs and emotions of divorce spiralling out of control.

  1. Organise your financial paperwork as early as possible in the process; one of the major costs in divorce cases can arise from lawyers having to sift through vast amounts of historic bank statements, pension plans and credit card bills when clients hand in boxes of papers. In Scotland, your lawyer will be trying to ascertain a snapshot of your assets and liabilities at the date you separated. If you can provide early and accurate information to vouch your position you will save on the costs of your solicitor having to obtain that for you.
  2. Use your lawyer as a lawyer, not a counsellor; many family lawyers find that much of their time talking to clients can be more akin to the role of friend or counsellor. Having a lawyer you can talk to openly and who will listen is important. But sometimes the lawyer can become a sounding board for every complaint about an ex-spouse. Lawyers will generally charge by the hour. Twenty minutes bemoaning your ex's shortcomings will be costly and unless the information is pertinent to your case, not a good use of your resources which will often be stretched anyway as a result of a separation.
  3. Don't argue about the children; many divorcing spouses can find themselves drawn into endless disputes about the care and contact arrangements for children. Even the most sensible parents can react badly when a new partner arrives on the scene. Child cases can rumble on for years with every minor arrangement being debated and argued via solicitors. Mediation services or a trusted mutual friend can assist in bringing sense and costs saving to these intractable disputes.
  4. Avoid court; the Ombudsman's report highlights that some lawyers will try to maximise their earnings by driving a case to court. For a lawyer, a long and acrimonious court action can generate substantial fees. Damaged and emotional clients can be steered by a cynical lawyer towards an uncompromising position which can only be resolved by the courts. People will rarely gain any satisfaction from this approach. Many family lawyers encourage alternative methods of dispute resolution such as collaborative law, mediation and arbitration which can assist in mitigating costs and reduce ill-feeling. Even if you make concessions in financial matters beyond those which you might think"fair" at the time, sometimes it is better to do so, than to carry on arguing about matters which are not economically justifiable.
  5. Choose a firm with the necessary expertise and experience; you wouldn't approach a cardiologist if you had trouble with your knees, but many people will instruct firms who only occasionally deal with family law cases. Often, a good relationship between the lawyers involved can help reduce the animosity and cost of a divorce; sensible discussions between lawyers who have a proper understanding of family law can help bring about a practical and cost-effective outcome.

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