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Divorce solicitors: when is the best time to seek second opinions?

After a wonderful holiday in Israel, it was a pleasure to return to work and start afresh. Then, as I read through the emails that had been sent by blog readers, I noticed one recurring theme. It is a subject on which I have commented previously: people seeking second opinions on their cases.

As I have always made clear, I am happy to help people in trouble and give them some advice pro bono. Why not? I don’t mind. And I do it.  But this time there were plenty of people in trouble, desperately seeking advice. And (this is when I became quite depressed) in the circumstances, for many of them there was not a lot that I could do. It was too late.

So I thought I’d write a post, in the hope that if you recognise that you are going down a wrong route, you may still be able to do something about it.

The people who contacted me had all spent a lot of money with their respective lawyers. In one case, it was well over £50,000. In another, the reader had spent savings of £3,000. For these two people, it was money that they can ill afford – but they paid it and took their chance.

So why contact me?

Because these people believe that their cases have gone wildly wrong. Now they are desperate and seeking help when truthfully, with orders made, it’s too late. I can’t help them, but perhaps I can steer you away from these pitfalls.

Two common problems, it seems, are lack of communication between the client and the lawyer, and lack of proactivity by the client at the right time.

On these points, I have some experience of my own. A couple of years ago I became (very reluctantly) involved in a dispute with a neighbour, in a case involving a plot of land along the boundary of our home. I am not a conveyancer and I did not know anything at all about establishing a legal boundary to land. I discovered that the boundary plan at the Land Registry is not good evidence – and I didn’t know how to prove that a plot of land belonged to us rather than a new neighbour who had simply annexed it to his land and built on it while we were away on holiday. Determined that it did belong to us, and determined to have it back,  I did my homework.

I spent hours every night and at weekends on the internet, researching the law and trawling for documentary evidence to prove that the land was indeed ours. It was quite a task and so I instructed solicitors who held themselves to be experts in that area. I can honestly say that I thought they were expensive… and, unfortunately, useless. In the end, when I received a whopping bill for what I considered to be negative advice and not very much work, I sacked them and took over the conduct of the case myself. I found my own experts and we won. Unusually and against my lawyers’ advice of its likelihood, the building came down and our boundary was re-established. As a sideline I was also pleased to discover much about the history of our home, about which I had no previous knowledge. I was able to restore, fully, our home’s integrity.

I did adopt a very high risk strategy and it took a lot of determination and hard work, but believe me, it was – and still is – so worth it. (Not that I’m recommending readers to take high risks themselves, of course!) I realised that if I had depended upon the lawyer and done nothing myself, the outcome would likely have been different. All those hours of work and worry paid off because I had sufficient experience as a professional to know that not only did I need to know the law, I had to find the ammunition too.So to anyone who is currently swimming against the tide in a divorce case that isn’t going well,  here is my advice:1. If you know your case is complex, a cheap quote should send alarm bells ringing. In my opinion, a really cheap quote from a lawyer is probably a false economy. Don’t go for the lowest quote but similarly, please don’t think that an expensive quote will guarantee everything on your wish list. A lawyer will do their best for you, but can give few guarantees.Find a lawyer with a good reputation and get yourself a second comparison if necessary, against which you can make your choice.  Otherwise, even though you can probably hold your lawyer to the quoted fee and you are entitled to complain to the Legal Complaints Service if you feel that the firm’s service has been poor, you may not get the expertise that you need and the results that you deserve.

Work costs money, but the sum should be a reasonable figure that you can afford. If you can’t afford to pay the lawyer, then you don’t want to run out of money halfway through and have to cast around for “plan B”.  In my case, I agreed to a high quote because I knew my case would be expensive. But when I realised it was going to be even more expensive than the quote and I wasn’t getting anything but negativity in return, I got out before I got in too deep.

2. A lawyer is not a magician! You need to help too. Don’t just sit there issuing ambitious demands. Worse still, don’t bottle up your hopes, concerns and decisions without letting the lawyer know how you really feel. If you want to settle for less, or pitch your case in a different way, then make sure that your views are fully discussed in detail – and that you receive written advice on the points you raise.

3. Get involved. A lawyer isn’t a mindreader, either. If you require maintenance while the case is ongoing, say so and make sure it is sorted out. If you are to be the recipient of a settlement, work out what you need in terms of income, capital and housing. Don’t overdo your requirements because it could go against you – as some of you have discovered.

4. Don’t mope around waiting to hear from your lawyer. There are legal limitations on “self help” and your lawyer will advise you about these, but I know from my own experience that the internet is a wonderful tool. It’s amazing how much information you can obtain (legally) if you think carefully and cast your net wide enough. The internet can also provide a wealth of detail about current law and cases and how these are resolved, so you can stay abreast of family law developments.

5. Be brave! Don’t be scared to tell your lawyer if you feel that something is not right, or you are uncomfortable about a recommended course of action. And if you don’t say a word at the time, why complain about it months down the line? What’s the point?

6. If you think your spouse is pulling a fast one, do something about it. Don’t just sit there and let it happen, only to complain bitterly at a later date. Are you a partner in a business? Read the figures, go there and see what is happening, visit the accountants and take copies of the documents you are lawfully permitted to copy. Visit the bank. Ask for copies of all memoranda relating to the company. This is particularly useful if you are being told that the business is failing.

Spouses are often on the company books and are perfectly entitled to go to work, so if you are, make the most of what can be a valuable advantage. You might find evidence ofmoney not being put through the books, or separate businesses hiving off profits. Perhaps an enquiry agent can help? Can investigations be made via a forensic accountant? In every case, ask your solicitor beforehand to make sure that what you intend to do is lawful.

7. Ensure that a good barrister is retained at the earliest opportunity. Ask to see a barrister in good time if your solicitor doesn’t mention it first. What “good time” means is different in many cases. In some, advice is needed from the beginning when there are complex issues, such as how to prevent assets from being dissipated. In other cases, it may be when a Form E is being readied, or after exchange when deficiencies in information are being considered. This is an important time, and you should be ready for it with your research and questions. You should have seen a barrister before the First Appointment if your case is not straightforward.

8. You aren’t playing Russian Roulette at an FDR. Don’t settle at the Financial Dipsute Resolution hearing unless you agree that you are in the right ball park and/or you are advised that the risks of going ahead significantly outweigh the risk of settling and obtaining certainty. If you aren’t comfortable with what’s on offer, keep going.

9. Use your time wisely.
The time period between the First Appointment, the FDR and the final hearing is a lengthy one, but don’t waste it. Time does pass: before you know it, the next hearing will be upon you. You may well become frustrated and wonder what is going on. Make sure you communicate with your lawyer regularly, and discuss what you feel needs to be done. If you get a sense of things getting stuck, or bogged down, send a letter seeking clarification. Don’t send lengthy moans; send letters that are proactive.

10. If you aren’t happy with the outcome of a hearing, don’t let the time limit for an appeal lapse. If you believe that the judge was wrong, you may well be right! Once lodged, an appeal can sometimes be a useful negotiating tool when all else has failed.

Perhaps this advice will prove useful for some of you. Although it has come too late for recent correspondents, I hope that these pointers have come in time for others.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. kate jones says:

    I was divorced 15 years ago and unfortunately lost my paperwork so i contacted law courts whom have told me that the absolute never went through although my solicitor told me they had and gave me a bill for £15,000
    What do i do where do you suggest i start as i need them asap .
    Regards kate

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Kate
      I suggest you contact the solicitors and ask them to sort it out which if it is their error they should do free of charge. if you have a problem then ask another firm to do it and send the bill with your complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.
      Best wishes

  2. Carlie says:

    I settled at a FDR hearing on the 31st May, but I feel I was wrong to do so and I wonder if I have any right of appeal?
    I’d never met my Barrister before and found him totally intimidating. I didn’t feel that he represented me effectively. How do i address my discomfort with the process? I’d really appreciate your help.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Carlie
      This blog is littered with comments about not settling at an FDR unless you are 100% certain. Lawyers can only give opinions and if your barrister advised settlement then I assume he did so with good reason and with your solicitor’s agreement too. It was then up to you.
      You should urgently contact your solicitor explaining how you feel. If the deal is not yet in writing you may, but it’s a slim chance, have a way out. If it is in writing but not yet a court order you may also have a way out but it is highly unlikely and cases have been fought and lost by people who tried to get out of an agreement made at the FDR.
      I can only repeat my advice to all readers. NEVER settle without being absolutely certain this deal is for you. You can always ask for time to consider and make your mind up free from pressure. There is too much at stake to settle without being certain.
      However on a positive note it is likely that you Carlie have done a good deal, give what your barrister advised, which when you have time to stand back you will come to see.
      Contact your solicitor.
      Very best wishes

  3. Barbara Taylor says:

    I am 2 years into my divorce – have got my decree nisi but it is dragging on – costing me £8000 so far. My solicitor isn’t brilliant:

    5 late appointments And one cancelled letting me arrive at her office expecting to see her

    My husbands Financial disclosure was sent to wrong address And package was torn revealing sensitive information

    I was charged for 2 solicitors at initial meeting – without my knowledge and only discovered when her worksheet was emailed to me

    I only received vague worksheets and no invoices – this is from a large practice in Chester!

    I believe my solicitor is delaying matters to ensure I get to court – more money for her – should I go to legal ombudsman? I am running out of money now

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Barbara
      If you aren’t happy with the service provided change your solicitor. You must have confidence in your lawyers. Solicitors do try hard but mistakes can happen. It may not be the fault of the solicitor, but backroom secretaries, office juniors etc whose standards may not be as good as they should be. That’s not to say services issues shouldn’t be recognised and corrected.
      I doubt the delay is deliberate but it could be your case is more challenging than she can cope with – I don’t know;-it sounds a long time for a case to be on going if its a standard case, but you should write to the senior partner of the firm setting out your concerns and asking for a copy of the firm’s complaints procedure. They should look in to your complaints and report back to you. If you aren’t happy then you should contact the Legal Ombudsman.

  4. Kareena says:

    My partner is going through a divorce, he has the first part of his divorce through but the ex wife is making unreasonable requests with regards to financial matters. He is unhappy with his current solicitor and he feels this chap is not working in his favour, however the solicitor has advised he sees a Barrister? Why? my partner doesnt understand as it involves yet more cost.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Kareena
      A solicitor should certainly be able to give a proper steer from day one so the client knows where he is going and why. A barrister generally becomes involved if the case is complicated and a team is necessary or if a barrister is going to do a hearing, it makes sense to meet beforehand. Sometimes I have also instructed counsel to reinforce my opinion if the client is doubtful about my advice.
      If your partner overall isn’t happy, then perhaps he should change solicitors.

  5. George Mowbray says:

    My divorce has been going on for over three years now and I have had my decree nisi sing July 2012. My solicitor is not very pro active I only seem to hear from them when they want more money and it has cost me over £4500 now but there seems to be no end in sight they charged me £800 for a two hour meeting with my ex wifes solicitor. They have cancelled many appointments at the last minute and contact by phone is difficult too as they just tell me to keep phoning back and four times I was put on hold for up to 30 minutes only to be told that my solicitor and her secretary had gone home. They have never gave me a quote for how much things were going to cost and I was even charged £100 for a meeting when I questioned the £800 bill for the conference . There are no children involved and and at the start of procceddings my ex wife and I came to agreement to the value of the family home and contents however on other finacial dealings such as pensions and savings myself and my exwife are not in ageerment then she went on to question the value of our home and this has been the case for two years now. I asked to go to court for two years now but my solicitor has been unresponsive and just seems to do nothing. I left my home due to my wifes unacceptable behaviour some 18 months ago and have to rent a place whilst she resides in our home which has had the mortgage paid off she has even conned me out of £2500 but my solicitor does not seem to be interested in this also.

  6. MD says:

    Brother divorced 3 years ago; Home was owned by him for 25 plus years before he married his ex wife who met somebody else and was going to marry them and left the home; she is now cohabitated with another partner. House only in my brothers name and due to debts etc during marriage he still has a mortgage; which is solely in his name. He has reached agreement with his ex on the amount he will pay; Consent order completed; after many errors by his ex wife; her solicitor and my brothers solicitor; cost so far has reached around £4,000 due to errors and continuous mistakes. No children involved. My Brothers solicitor advised that the amount agreed may not be accepted by the courts but suggested he should still go ahead and lodge the order; now has another bill of over £1,400. THe court rejected the order despite agreement between my Brother and his ex wife. Further there is a considerable age difference my brother has retired and only doing some manual work – his ex wife is only in her late forties and has plenty of time to work. Now his solicitor is saying that there is no point pursuing further the consent order as it was unfair and that he should do nothing (which in fact is more unfair); yet she asked him to proceed in the first place and if the position is that everything should be split 50:50 (which is what his solicitor is saying is what courts consider fair) why in that case did she ask him to proceed with the consent order to rubber stamp the agreed settlement. He cannot afford the money he is spending on this and is having to borrow. Both he and his ex wife have agreed it is not fair for my brother to sell his home which he has had and solely paid towards; yet the courts will not pass this and my brothers solicitor is now saying she has no supporting argument to allow the courts to proceed….. he is now wondering whether to get a second opinion and in fact complain about his solicitor

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