FAMILY MATTERS: Act now to cut down on the cost of getting divorce

Hollywood separation: Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise ended up in the divorce courts.
Hollywood separation: Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise ended up in the divorce courts.
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FOR some couples, the strain of being together over the festive season proves too much and family law solicitors dub the first day of the new school term D Day.

That return to a normal routine can finally prompt a decision to file for divorce, confirms Sheffield solicitor Vanessa Fox, who is the chair of South Yorkshire Resolution, an organisation for family law solicitors.

And, with more cuts to the Legal Aid budget looming in April, she says it might be a good idea to act soon.

She said: “If people want to get divorced, they should consider action now, as in a year’s time many won’t be able to afford legal advice.”

Vanessa said: “In January it can be a busy time, although it can be a little bit of a myth. After Christmas people have spent a lot of time together in what can be a stressful situation, sometimes with too much alcohol and other family members visiting.

“People get back to normal after Christmas and New Year, and then decide that they have had enough, they contact a lawyer and take it from there.”

She says that September can see another peak after the holiday season but points out that divorce figures are actually falling.

Vanessa added: “I think what is concerning a lot of us is that in January 2014 people will also be having these problems but there will be no public funding for divorce cases unless there is violence. The legislation is quite specific in what is required: there willl need to be serious domestic violence that has involved court action in the past, or police involvement.

“For most clients those boxes aren’t ticked. People are very reluctant to involve the courts when there are children. They are very reluctant to contact the police, which I think is understandable.”

With public funding no longer available for many family cases from April, Resolution’s members are concerned that the majority of those who would previously have qualified for Legal Aid may end up falling through the cracks.

Vanessa said: “It’s a worrying time. In a survey of Resolution’s members, most Legal Aid practitioners believed less than a quarter of their cases would continue to be eligible for public funding after April this year. This may help the Government cut spending, but there’s a bigger social cost in the long run.”

Although she recognises that no-one is going to feel sorry for solicitors losing money, she pointed out that the cuts may end up putting more pressure on services, so the money saved has to be spent somewhere else anyway. The majority of Legal Aid goes on criminal cases, not family law, she said.

Also, many people receiving Legal Aid have to pay the money back with interest at some point in the future. For instance, if a house is involved, repayment has to be made when it is sold.

She said: “Children may well be the ones who suffer because of the raised temperature between parents. Lots of people think lawyers raise the temperature in divorce to make more money but family lawyers are trying to do the opposite. We try to say to our own clients ‘step back and look at this situation from the child’s point of view’.

“I also ask clients ‘if you had your child in the room, what would they want?’ It’s understandable that often hurt and grief about what has happened in a relationship can cloud your judgement. Objectivity is what I’m bringing to the situation.”

Vanessa, who works for hlw Keeble Hawson, says that Resolution members will recommend using alternative dispute resolution, including mediation, wherever possible, but this is not always possible as both parties usually sit in a room together for these processes to be most effective.

She predicts that many couples who can’t afford it will end up separating, with financial issues remaining unresolved. In addition, she believes it seems likely that issues involving children will not be resolved, meaning that some children might miss out on seeing one parent, or may be exposed to risky situations which could have been managed differently.

She encourages those facing separation and divorce to speak with a Resolution member about their options, regardless of whether they currently qualify for Legal Aid.

“Divorce and separation will always be a painful time, but it doesn’t need to be the bitter fight you often see in the media, taking years to settle and costing the couple huge sums of money. There are affordable and effective ways that you both can reach an agreement, ensuring any children’s best interests are put first and that the courtroom is avoided wherever possible.

“Resolution recently published a guide to these options, called Separating Together, and I would urge anyone who is facing separation or divorce to read this before going any further.

“Many of our members will offer a free or fixed-price initial meeting to talk through your options, so even if you will no longer qualify for Legal Aid, it’s well worth talking to a Resolution member about a way forward that works for you, as it could end up saving you money.”