Me, myself and I… Why instructing a lawyer makes good business and emotional sense

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Let’s start with the statistics. The Ministry of Justice figures show 13,029 new private law applications were made between April and June 2017, a 3% increase on the same period last year. And, significantly, neither the applicant nor respondent were represented in 36% of those cases, compared with 34% in the previous quarter. This means they were acting without a lawyer, as litigants in person.

In other words, in over a third of cases dealing with complex and emotionally charged issues of relationship breakdown; children’s future needs and/or private money related matters, those involved decided not to instruct lawyers to advise and represent them in the inevitably adversarial, rigorous and daunting process of going to Court. As such the parties potentially put that which was most important to them at great risk of being lost or not secured quite as they had hoped, often without any recourse to undo the result.

There are many divorce self-help books and sites on the internet that might lead one to believe that it is cheaper, quicker and easier to “do it yourself”. However, it is rarely that simple and is often a false economy. As family lawyers we are often consulted by Clients who have tried to deal with the divorce and resolution of the property and financial implications as litigants in person, but who have then sought help from us when complications have arisen or when they have felt out of their depth. Sadly, for some, the mistakes have already been made, and when they come to see us it’s a matter of damage limitation.  The results can be devastating.  Here are some examples with a salutary message…

  • A Consent Order had been drafted by an online divorce company which did not in fact enable the husband to force a sale of the former family home on the date he thought he had agreed to, and thus allow him to be released from the mortgage, and ensure he received his agreed share of the net proceeds. He was advised to make an application to vary the Order upon the basis that any other course of action, such as “setting aside” would be extremely difficult to succeed on in all the circumstances. The Client said he had no money to instruct us beyond an initial consultation now, having paid for the online fees.
  • A Client had been divorced for 4 years, but had not sought advice about the division of the finances at the time of the divorce. She came to us having discovered that her former husband’s business had become a huge, profitable success. However, as much as Decree Absolute in the divorce did not preclude her from re-opening the claims, the fact that she had re-married did.
  • A pension sharing Order was contained in the Consent Order prepared online. As neither party had a lawyer, neither of them knew what to do about implementation and they would have had to pay more to the online company to be advised as such, assuming that the company had that expert knowledge. It did not appear that the online company had advised the parties to speak with Financial Advisers or Pension actuaries about this highly complex area. The Decree Absolute had been granted already and so I advised that any approved Order would now take immediate effect, regardless, for good or for bad.
  • A mother acting in person, as a respondent to the father’s application for contact with their child, sought advice on cross-examining the father at the Final Hearing /Trial at Court. It was clear that the process would be an overwhelmingly emotional ordeal for her. The father was represented and the Client worried, understandably, about the imbalance of fighting power.

It is for you to take legal advice about a proposed final Court Order.  The Court will do it’s best to ensure that you are not disadvantaged within any proceedings if you do not have a Solicitor, but, ultimately, the Court cannot advise you substantively about the law or as to what to do next.  A Solicitor acting for your former spouse or partner cannot advise you as to the law either.  If you refuse to take legal advice about a final Court Order, having been given the opportunity to do so, you will only have yourself to blame if things don’t go as you had hoped or you don’t understand what you may have agreed to!

Court proceedings mean the completion of onerous and mystical tasks such as filing and serving statements, all to be done by a certain date, regardless of whether the Client’s domestic and employment circumstances or emotional or physical wellbeing allow for attending to this crucial office work. When any of us face life changing legal proceedings, we need solid legal expertise from someone who has all the academic and secretarial resources to hand. We need to feel confident that we have practical support, guidance and advice as to all that the process requires of us.

Solicitor Jo Edwards, former chair of family law body Resolution, has called for an “urgent impact assessment” to see whether some limited funding for initial advice should be reintroduced for Clients met with the unenviable prospect of having to act alone in proceedings. I think that such a retrograde step is unlikely and that the simple reality is that we, as lawyers, have a responsibility to ensure that Clients truly understand how we work and what is required of a party in litigation, yes, every little, vital detail of each step, so that each Client is certain, on an empirical basis, if possible, that they are getting good value for money when we are instructed.

We all have difficulty focussing on the task in hand and being practical and realistic from time to time, and when everything that is most important to us is at stake, it becomes even more of a challenge.  Bennett Griffin understands the mixture of stresses that separation and divorce can present.  We will endeavour to “turn down the heat” on volatile situations and act as a buffer when you can’t cope with dealing with your spouse or partner.  We are here to represent and protect your interests robustly with a view to achieving an equitable result for you and your family. We have the expertise, care and attention to help you through what is often a daunting and confusing process.

Why go it alone, when you can have us with you? It’s what we do best.

Give us a try.