Deborah Jeff, Partner at Simkins, explains how clients can keep their costs low during divorce proceedings.
Much is made of the cost of divorce and many like to suggest that solicitors drive up costs for their own benefit. That’s certainly not the case for specialist family solicitors who, unless there has been domestic abuse or there’s another compelling reason, adhere to a code of practice to encourage the family to keep communicating as best they can in the circumstances, minimising the flow of funds to the lawyers. We spend significant time often persuading clients to keep their case economical, and that it would be wise not to take their case to trial and risk the uncertainties that are inherent in every case before the family court in England and Wales because of the discretion within our family justice system. Often, it’s clients who become intransigent and refuse to back down or don’t prepare their case in a way that minimises costs to be incurred.
Legal fees reflect the amount of time, complexity and level of disagreement in a case but there are some simple steps clients can take to keep their costs to a minimum:
- Do as much preparation of your case as possible before consulting a solicitor. A common problem where significant costs are incurred is where clients provide their solicitor with disorganised papers, often omitting vital information. Lawyers then have to pass the papers to a paralegal or junior solicitor to rectify them before beginning to review them.
- Instruct a specialised family solicitor highly ranked for what they do and review their approach carefully. Ask trusted friends and family for a recommendation if necessary. It’s paramount to select a solicitor you trust and are able to build a good relationship with, one who communicates well and responds promptly. As in any area of life, where a specialist is needed it will come with costs, such as when you need a specialist medical consultant, for example. Since it will have an impact on your family’s future, usually your financial future too, accepting some costs for such advice is necessary. Family lawyers often spend time correcting mistakes on a case where a client has tried to do too much themselves or where a solicitor not specialising in family law has tried to run the case, costing a client more in the long run.
- When you have chosen a solicitor and have met with them, prepare a summary of your case in advance, listing the issues you want to discuss and an outline of the assets in any financial dispute.
- Where possible, keep up good communication with your former partner. Try to ensure that most conversations take place between you directly and not via your respective solicitors. Protracted correspondence is another area where significant costs can be incurred.
- Consider using a solicitor for only part of your case. It’s possible to act in person with your solicitor in the background advising you as and when you choose to consult them.
- Use a conciliatory form of dispute resolution where appropriate, such as mediation. If there has been any imbalance in the relationship such as domestic abuse, however, mediation is unlikely to be the right forum to resolve matters.
- If an agreement can’t be reached, aim to speed up the legal process by agreement with your former partner, either by working ahead of the court timetable or contracting out of the court service and using family law arbitration or agreeing to have a private Finance Dispute Resolution hearing.
- In some limited circumstances, family law advice can be given by those other than solicitors and barristers. Some online services now help couples prepare their own court documents in simple divorce and family cases, i.e. they act for both parties. These cases are limited and won’t apply to complex, multi-jurisdictional cases, but are worth exploring for smaller asset cases. Some red flags mean such joint advice isn’t possible, such as domestic abuse; alcoholism or mental health issues; where one party has already instructed a solicitor; where one party is unprepared to negotiate and where there is a suggestion that assets have not been fully disclosed.
- Crucially, try to step back and consider the facts of your case without any emotional involvement. Would you advise your best friend to proceed in the circumstances when there is an alternative advised solution? Why spend family money you’ve worked hard generating entering a situation where your family solicitor is warning of the risk? I often advise my clients that whilst the family courts don’t have the word ‘casino’ above the door, clients are spinning the roulette wheel when they take a case to trial.
- Finally, read some family law reports. See the berating judges give clients over how much they have each spent taking a case to trial and the net effect for each of them thereafter. Judges are often warning clients that in a case hard-fought to trial which should have settled months or years ago the only winners are their lawyers. Sometimes there are no alternatives, but for others, it happens time after time, despite our words of advice. Get specialist advice. Listen. Don’t become another one of those cases.