Tuesday, 21 May 2013
Dealing with difficult people was the theme for a training course that I attended today. There was no role play, although the opportunity to be objectionable and cantankerous was clearly relished by many. Instead there was ample opportunity for interaction by the trainer and the participants who were all collaborative lawyers practising in the North East and who are always keen to hone their soft skills.
During the course of the session it materialised that, for many of us, difficult people are not so much clients going through the trauma of a relationship breakdown but rather the solicitor acting for our client’s estranged spouse. The difficult professional is not, of course, a collaboratively trained lawyer but instead someone who can create even more mayhem to what is already a delicate but confused situation, simply by flexing an inflated ego, be it his own or his client’s. The wrong choice of phrase in a letter, a bullying strategy, an unnecessarily aggressive stance and the warming up of muscles for a fight are classic traits. They expect fire to be met with fire and the process of resolution in the best interests of the whole family is seriously undermined.
However, as result of the assistance of coach Andrew Pearce from Prydale Partners, such combatants can in future expect their tactics to be met with disabling responses. Never underestimate the power of silence, body language or a collaborative practitioner who knows the secrets for securing control.
Tuesday, 23 April 2013
"My husband’s name is George,” sighed my client. “He had a mother with a sense of humour.”
“Pardon?” I asked.
“George: after the patron saint of Merry England (whose day it is today),” she replied, pausing mid- sentence.
I awaited her explanation with curiosity. Was she going to tell me that he slays dragons?
“The patron saint of England,” she repeated “And also of Portugal, Malta, Germany and Lithuania, not to mention of syphilis, and for which I want to petition him for divorce!”
Wednesday, 17 April 2013
As a 10 day period of apparent national mourning comes to a close, I thought now would be a prudent moment to ponder as to any influence Lady Thatcher may have had on my own work as a divorce lawyer. Whilst her own late husband was a divorcee, I honestly have no idea as to her views on the issue. Perhaps therefore it would be better to consider the matter from the perspective of divorcees and what they may have learned from the former Prime Minister’s legacy and her reputation as the Iron Lady. Indeed how did she come to be known as such?
It is fair to say that unlike many of the ordinary people that I divorce, I find it impossible to recall Mrs Thatcher posing with an iron or even to imagine her going about mundane household chores whilst holding high office.
Further and whilst accredited with providing the impetus for the tearing down of the Iron Curtain, I doubt if that’s what earned her the title. Although many a divorcee has stripped bare their marital home whilst their spouse has been out, the ferrying away of light fittings and curtains is hardly akin to the liberation of Eastern Europe.
On my own part, I had the privilege to grow up in Consett, an iron and steel town in the North West of County Durham. Or rather it was an iron and steel town until the policies pursued by Mrs Thatcher’s government closed the steel works and left a community of 36,000 people without any obvious form of employment. Our school motto (in Latin, of course) translated as “from out of iron comes forth steel.” I hesitate to think that the Iron Lady earned her name on the back of closing Consett’s steel works; irony at its worst, if it was.
No it came clearly from her single minded and robust determination to pursue her policies through to the end. “The Lady’s not for turning,” she famously said.
Perhaps that’s where there is a connection with some estranged spouses; those who embark on what can be an embittered and highly divisive strategy for resolving financial and property issues, as well as the future well-being of their children.
However, in my experience, by far the majority seek to divorce with dignity. Tactics that may be vote-winners in politics have no place in the resolution of family issues. Collaboration and the ability to see issues from both sides, not intransigence, is always the key.
Labels: collaborative law
Monday, 1 April 2013
Ahead of the legal aid cuts due to take effect today, family law practitioners have reiterated concerns that vulnerable people will be left without proper legal advice and support during divorce.
Resolution, the country’s largest association of family law practitioners, has repeatedly warned of the devastating effects of the legal aid cuts, which will result in 200,000 people a year being denied access to justice. Legal aid will remain available to support many victims of domestic violence and a further limited number of people for mediation, which Resolution supports as a non-court based approach to resolving family disputes.
However, mediation is not a one-size-fits-all solution: for it to be successful, both parties need to agree to engage. Where one party is not willing, there is no support available. As a result, many people will be forced to represent themselves, sometimes in court (known as ‘litigants in person’), acting without legal advice.
Speaking on the day that changes to the legal aid regime come into force, Resolution’s Chair, Liz Edwards, said:
“Our members know from experience that most clients do not know what kind of financial settlement they are entitled to or have to provide.
This is essentially a false economy, as the weaker partner is left with an inadequate settlement and is pushed into reliance on benefits, shifting the costs to other areas of public spending. This will ultimately place a greater burden on the public purse.
These cuts fail families and run counter to the government’s stated aim of putting children and families at the heart of policy. The effects will be particularly damaging for the children in divorce cases, particularly those from poor backgrounds."
Divorce and separation is always a difficult time but it need not be long, drawn out and excessively expensive. There are constructive and affordable ways to reach agreement and Resolution members can help separating families focus on the needs of the children and keep disputes out of the courtroom.
The Legal Services Commission (which is being abolished and replaced with the Legal Aid Agency as of today) has indicated that there will be strict limits on a legal aid firm’s ability to take on work beyond that initially allocated. People who remain eligible for legal aid may therefore experience difficulty locating a legal aid lawyer to represent them as fewer practitioners are able to provide legal aid. Access to justice risks becoming a postcode lottery.
While Resolution and other leading organisations successfully convinced the government to ensure that victims of domestic violence will still be able to access proper legal advice, victims still face many hurdles. They will be expected to present evidence in support of their claim but for many this may not be practically possible. Fees may also be charged to provide some types of evidence, for example a GP’s report, placing additional financial pressures on domestic abuse sufferers.
Thursday, 7 March 2013
As the case of Vicky Pryce showed today marital coercion, a little used defence available only to married women and dating back to 1925, may be of little assistance in repudiating a criminal charge. Indeed there have been many calls for it to be repealed and today’s verdict will have done little to justify its continuing existence.
Vicky Pryce’s defence to a charge of perverting the course of justice was of course that she was coerced by Chris Huhne, her philanderer of a husband, to accept speeding points on her licence when he in fact was the driver of the car. Sadly the speeding offence happened way back in 2003 but when Mr Huhne left her in June 2010, Ms Pryce appears to have sought her revenge. She went to the Press and it seems somewhat effectively and as a result has destroyed not only her husband’s career as an MP but also now her own as an economist. They are both waiting what will potentially be sentences of imprisonment.
As a divorce lawyer it is common to come across clients who are so embittered by the lot they have been thrown that they embark on a spiral of self-destruction. Whilst the vitriol may be aimed at the estranged spouse, ultimately it harms them both.
If there is any lesson that can be drawn from the evidence given in court at this trial, it surely has to be that you do yourself no service by washing dirty linen in public. Further and if you have both behaved dishonestly and in contravention of the law then do not expect that you can stitch him up without also facing the consequences yourself.
Thursday, 28 February 2013
So the media today would have us believe that divorce lawyers overcharge, based on a report issued by the Legal Ombudsman.
Not all the comments made in the report are being repeated in the media. Whilst it transpires that complaints to the Legal Ombudsman are higher for divorce than any other area of law, the report acknowledges that “divorce can be a deeply emotional event” and that “strong emotions can naturally colour and shape the customer’s approach to their legal service.” Indeed it is stated that “Often," and I stress that word “often,” “lawyers are able to guide customers sensitively through the emotional and practical minefield that is the divorce process.” Conversely it states “there are some occasions where the quality of service falls short.”
The main reason for complaint would appear to relate to costs. All solicitors must give their clients an estimate of likely costs when they are first consulted, but this is not normally a fixed quote. In circumstances where the divorce process, particularly when coupled with issues concerning children, money or property can become very complex (not least because it involves two people often with very different views as to what the outcome must be) the Ombudsman stresses that estimates need to be “hedged around with caveats” and that customers must be “regularly updated.”
The report points out those costs can spiral especially where cases are prolonged and bitterly disputed. “Good lawyers, the majority of those with whom we deal,” it is acknowledged, “manage …with admirable deftness” and where the lawyers “has clearly done everything possible to dissuade the customer from pursuing an unachievable objective or unreasonable course of action…the customer has to take responsibility for the outcome.”
Indeed the report concludes that “As hard as it must be to keep emotions in check, the lessons from this report all point towards the necessity for divorcing couples to try.” A failure to do so can, according to the findings, “cause a difference of between £10,000 and £50,000 worth of legal fees”. These are altogether different levels of costs than the £1300, quoted by the media from the report, of average costs for a straight forward divorce.
Ultimately anyone seeking a divorce is obviously recommended to use their solicitor for the legal and not the emotional aspects of the matter; keep their emotions in check; instruct a lawyer who has been recommended to them or someone whose credentials they have checked; ensure they understand how and what they will be charged and keep tabs on the amount they spend.
Wednesday, 27 February 2013
I am intrigued by reports today that there are plans afoot for a manned space mission to Mars in 2018. Even more so by the fact that and in order to represent humanity it is hoped that a middle-aged couple can be identified to share a 15 square metre capsule for the duration of the 500 day journey, accompanied by more than a tonne of dehydrated food and 28kg of toilet paper.
Has experience as a divorce lawyer turned me into an old cynic or is this not the perfect recipe for divorce? Cooped up together in such close proximity for more than 18 months, it is going to take a very special couple to survive that experience with their marriage intact.
Come to think of it will interplanetary space travel be the next big stress to cause a boom in divorces? How long in effect before the honeymoon on the moon receives an “up Uranus” ending?
Wednesday, 13 February 2013
In March last year “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation” was published. In it the author, Rachel Cusk, attempts to chronicle her attempt at rebuilding normality after her 10 year marriage falls apart.
The book is widely criticised for repeated and allegedly pointless references to Greek mythology as well as self-indulgence. Needless to say it failed to make it to the Bestsellers’ List.
Today, however, Camilla Long from the Sunday Times has received the Hatchet Job of the Year Award for her review of the book in which she describes it as “acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains” in which the author “tramples anyone close to her especially [her husband] Clarke.” Pretty much like any divorcee’s diary then!
It is hardly a fair subject for a damning review when one hopes that the author at least found therapy in the act of writing. However with a prize of a golden hatchet and a year’s supply of potted shrimps, there are surely any number of reviewers queuing to put forward their own extreme critique on the literary offerings presented to them. Divorcees beware and keep your private thoughts locked away, especially if committed to paper.
Sunday, 10 February 2013
All the current fuss about horsemeat takes me back to once upon a time when I acted for a client, let’s call him Mr Orson Cart. (I stress, of course, that any resemblance to anyone alive or dead of this name is totally coincidental.)
Mr Cart was a polite and distinguished gentleman whose marriage had descended into a difficult period following the birth of a fourth child. When I first met him, he complained that his wife who was a lover of all things equine was forever putting her horses before the Carts. He had repeatedly asked her to sell them but to no avail.
A meeting or two later, I detected a sense of paranoia when he told me that the horses had disappeared. I assumed that his wife had finally sold them but Mr Cart was not so sure. It transpired that his wife had organised a barbecue two or three days after their disappearance and, when he’d commented how good her homemade burgers tasted, she’d done no more than smile.
The next day he had awoken with a severe case of “the trots” and realising that his wife may have referred to filly steak as opposed to fillet, he was convinced that he had been poisoned. He duly visited his GP, who sympathised and advised him that he should watch what he ate.
I asked Mr Cart what action he wished me to take concerning the matter. However, he told me that I would have to wait for further instructions because, on doctor’s orders, he was going to Epsom to watch The Derby!