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Family lawyers: could they be doing more?

It has become something of a truism that times are tough out there. As economic correspondents and business associations never tire of reminding us, for many wages are stagnant, work scare, business hard to come by. And family lawyers are certainly not immune to such pressures.

Recent figures paint a clear picture. According to the Law Society’s latest quarterly financial survey, the amount of family law work coming into small and medium sized firms remained largely static over the last six months of this year. Little has changed since the same period last year.

There was some good news for legal professional in the results: residential conveyancing work, for example, has apparently increased by a healthy 12 per cent, and commercial work is also up amongst the two and a half thousand law firms surveyed. Such results could indicate the first stirrings of a real economic recovery – I’d certainly like to think so anyway!

But what about family law? Why has this normally dynamic sector  plateaued over the last year?

In a recent blog in the Law Society Gazette website, Catherine Baksi rightly notes the contrast between the results from the Law Society survey and those from a YouGov survey published to accompany the launch of divorce app Sorting Out Separation in November.

According to the latter 52 per cent of respondent found it hard to get help they needed when they separated, and 39 per cent did not seek any professional help after their separation. Of those, 25 per cent said could not find what they needed or felt embarrassed by the situation.

If there is substance behind the YouGov figures, they certainly suggest a lot of untapped potential for family law firms. Meanwhile, yet another survey suggests that Britain has become a nation of enthusiastic divorcers. New figures from EU statistical organisation Eurostat reveal that more Britons get divorced than people in any EU country beside Finland. We have an average divorce 2.8 per 1,000 people, compared to an EU average of 1.8 per 1,000. In Luxembourg, the figure is just 0.6 per 1,000 people, something like one fifth of the UK rate.

This dubious distinction certainly says something about the state of modern Britain. Some, such as the Marriage Foundation, will no doubt see such figures as a sign of social decay.

So why aren’t family lawyers across the country booming? Is it, as Catherine Baksi wonders, a relatively simple case of them not doing enough to sell themselves?

I am very sceptical of the government’s claims that the people do not know where to turn if their marriage ends. Most people are sensible and know that in a difficult and disorientating situation like divorce, you need professional help. You need a solicitor.

But there is often one simple and crucial difference between conveyancing, commercial legal work, to take two examples, and family law: money. Companies and corporations usually have the money to pay for the legal assistance they need. People buying and selling homes have access to cash via sales and mortgages.

But divorce, separation, children’s issues – these are all intensely personal and revolve around people’s own, accessible assets. In a sluggish economy people just don’t have as much to spend on professional legal help as they once did. And with the looming end of Legal Aid, fewer and fewer people will have anything at all.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Friend says:

    Most people are sensible and know that in a difficult and disorientating situation like divorce, you need professional help. You need a solicitor.
    – Actually, no. About the worst thing you could do is go to a solicitor, unless it is just to legalize an agreement that you’ve already worked out with your former spouse. The only reason you’d see a solicitor is if you are bent on hurting your spouse and children badly, or in need of defending yourself from such abuse.

  2. Marilyn Stowe says:

    So why keep reading my blog?

  3. Andy says:

    I obviously don’r agrees with Friend’s comment above, but the issue is how much people believe they need a solicitor. In the majority of divorce’s hiring a solicitors is necessary but that doesn’t mean individual’s realise the benefits. Often they will simply think along the lines of finance and decide that hiring a solicitor will require payment, not hiring one will not. I’m not saying this is the right way to think, but it’s human nature, especially if money is tight.

  4. Fiona says:

    Affordability is the key.
    It seems to me that lawyers and counsel charge fees which are simply beyond the reach of ordinary people. There seems to be no understanding in the legal world that you can only charge what the market will bear, or people won’t buy your service.
    In the past legal representation was only available to the rich. Then those who practice law were protected from the market by taxpayer subsidy in the form of legal aid.
    Perhaps the demise of legal aid will finally make law firms sit up and take notice of the huge market out there who would actually pay for their services if only they charged more realistic fees.
    The only reason business is sustained in other areas of law (such as conveyancing) is because costs are broadly fixed. You know how much it will cost before you start, and as a percentage of the purchase price of a property it looks affordable. Unlike commercial or employment law, divorce cannot be covered by legal assistance insurance.
    The exorbitant cost of representation in divorce is only sustainable when there are substantial assets to split. I think negative equity and the increase in families renting rather than purchasing accommodation is at least partly to blame.
    The way ahead for Family Law is to introduce more affordable, transparent fee structures (see the Co-op Legal Services), and/or longer-term payment plans.
    Until that happens, there will be no help for people who need these services the most.
    It might also help if there was some way of recognising and dealing with vexatious and abusive litigants who would rather spend money on legal representation than reach a fair settlement with their ex!

  5. Friend says:

    McKenzie friends help people out for a third of the cost, and sometimes for no fees at all. They are an individual and so they care and will generally work ten times harder. They are also child-centered, so do not think in terms of winning and losing, but in terms of decreasing acrimony and reaching a solution that is best for all.
    That probably explains the mystery here.

  6. Fiona says:

    McKenzie Friends aren’t regulated or insured. They may have their own axe to grind, in which case they are very capable of making matters worse by inflaming the situation or encouraging people to settle for something not in their or the children’s interests. A few MFs charge rates comparable to some solicitors.
    If divorcing couples are sensible and communication is difficult when they are separating it’s possible to negotiate through solicitors and move forward without it costing a fortune.

  7. JamesB says:

    re ” it’s possible to negotiate through solicitors and move forward without it costing a fortune”
    No it bloody isn’t!

  8. Friend says:

    On the contrary, it is lawyers who have the axe to grind, because they are compelled by the principle of competition. Nor are solicitors regulated or insured, as anyone who has ever been in touch with the farcical SRA knows perfectly well.
    MFs are only there to be a “friend”, take notes, offer emotional and moral support, and advise on the most conciliatory course of action. They rather help you steer very clear of the usual inflammatory statements, and help you keep your head. I don’t know of any MFs that support enmity or anything other than the child’s interest in shared parenting, but maybe that is because I am a man.
    It’s quite possible that female MFs have an axe to grind, as Fiona suggests, and in that case they might indeed be no better than a lawyer in terms of inflaming what is already usually a volatile situation.
    Thanks for helping to clarify.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Thanks for your comments. Ive decided enough is enough here! McKenzie Friends are not lawyers.
      It takes years of studying and learning, its a real hard slog to qualify and then two years of experience thereafter advsing, watching, learning under supervision trained lawyer with clients, to be able to become qualified to give clients advise and of course to represent them as a lawyer. Its a non stop learning process which all the lawyers I know undertake with diligence and a concern for their clients.
      With all due respect, that is not what you are or will ever be unless you too choose to follow that route.
      You may be good at hand holding, but at the same time you may also be actively damaging your friends case and worse still you do not have the faintest idea or appreciation that in fact you could be doing just that.
      Lawyer cant be replaced by people who arent lawyers and Im fed up reading yours and others constant put down of us.
      When youve achieved what we have, then and only then will you have the right to criticse us.
      Best wishes

  9. Fiona says:

    I agree with Marilyn’s comments about MFs. I think if you have an intelligent friend who can give you support and help you through the process that’s great, but there’s no substitute for proper legal advice.
    The problem is, that advice is simply unaffordable for most people. The question I have is how can this be addressed?

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Well I will give my new book a quick plug!
      By the end of the month, I will have on Kindle a (circa)300 page book aimed at all separating/ divorcing parents. It will be full of as many tips as I can think of to help people get through the process. Law, practice, procedure, emotions, money, children, resources, examples, casebooks, advice etc etc. I am really pleased with how its finally shaping up.
      It will also be FREE to download. I am in the final editing stage right now! And if anyone has any areas they would like me to add in, this is the right time to do it!
      So thats my own personal contribution to everyone out there. Along with the blog of course where I will continue to give free advice as always.
      Best wishes

  10. Friend says:

    Sorry but I have to disagree strongly. Anyone can read the Children Act and do family law. And I have seen lawyers give the worst possible advice, e.g., encouraging false allegations. An MF can bring a heightened ethical conscientiousness to bear on what is a highly immoral business.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Encourage false allegations? How could the lawyer know they were false? How could you?
      Neither of you could unless you had physically been there.
      A lawyer must advance a clients case in accordance with his or professional obligations and duties as an Officer of the Court.
      You have none and owe none.

  11. JamesB says:

    I like the idea of the fixed price, like the conveyencers.

  12. Fiona says:

    The most important thing a lawyer does is to give their client objective advice and act in their best interests. A friend has no duty to be objective, only to be sympathetic. Which is absolutely what friends are for! However it is not always in someone’s best interests to be assisted and encouraged by someone who expresses personal support regardless of the likely outcome.
    I used to work in a representative capacity in employment disputes. I frequently had to explain to people that I wasn’t their counsellor, I was someone trained to get the best possible outcome for them whether or not I was sympathetic to their case.
    There is absolutely no point in giving people false hope in legal proceedings, and I think an overly sympathetic (and often simplistic) approach can be misleading, and has encouraged overblown notions of bias in the family courts.

  13. Friend says:

    “Friend” is obviously a misnomer here. Obviously MFs are no less objective than lawyers.
    The “best possible outcome” for the client runs counter to the so-called “child welfare principle” which is what most MFs are interested in, albeit genuinely rather than in some interpreted sense of what the client would like to think “the best interests of the child” are.

  14. Fiona says:

    Firstly you are confusing the “best possible outcome for the client” with what the client actually wants to achieve. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing.
    I certainly don’t agree that it is “obvious” that MFs are no less objective than lawyers”, as they tend to be motivated by their own personal experience of Family Law.
    It concerns me that you seem to think that most MFs are uniquely interested in the “child welfare principle”, when the true role of a MF is simply to assist the litigant in person rather than pursue an agenda of their own.

  15. Friend says:

    I’m not confusing anything. Whether you talk about the best outcome for the client, or what the client wants to achieve, these are both very often at odds with the child welfare principle.
    What an MF does much better than an acrimony-escalating lawyer is help the parent understand what’s expected of them by the court, and what their responsibilities are as a parent, and what the most child-centered course of action is. I don’t know of any MFs who have agendas, only those who’ve witnessed firsthand how the system has screwed up children’s lives for the past half-century, and want to be a part of healthy change.

  16. Fiona says:

    “I don’t know of any MFs who have agendas…”
    Well let’s look at your agenda, gleaned from the Child Maintenance Options thread:
    “the incentive that now exists for divorcing the hubbie so as to feed off of him like a parasite for the next 16 years”.
    You accuse lawyers of being “acrimony-escalating”, but there is nothing more certain to escalate acrimony in a Family Law case than this kind of misogyny, masquerading as child-centred concern.
    Thankfully there will always be properly qualified family lawyers, and I predict they will actually become more accessible and affordable as the legal aid changes take effect, and that the predicted growth in SRLs may be less catastrophic than some people think.
    However, it is an issue which has been taken seriously by the Justice System. There is already an improvement in the Family Law advice available online, and more understanding and tolerance will be extended to SRLs. Although some Judges will continue to find this onerous, they will eventually be replaced with a younger generation who finds this development more manageable.
    I might add that this is a double-edged sword for SLRs. In the Employment Tribunals where there is no shortage of SLRs, a Judge who has bent over backwards to ensure a fair hearing will certainly not hesitate to draw the line if a litigant attempts to abuse the system in pursuit of a vexatious or malicious case based on personal axe-grinding.

  17. Friend says:

    I can’t be bothered to read more than your first two lines.
    You seem to be unaware that most MFs are retired lawyers who’ve had the brainwave that the present system is effectively state-sponsored child abuse, and since they are retired and no longer benefiting from this, they might as well try and do some good now.
    Since when does this observation –
    “the incentive that now exists for divorcing the hubbie so as to feed off of him like a parasite for the next 16 years” –
    qualify as an agenda?
    And since when can you label such an observation misogyny? Oh, never mind, I know: since we all realized that labeling someone misogynist was a cheap trick aimed at manipulating the minds of half the people. P
    Please save your accusations for the court room, where I’m sure you are very good with language.

  18. JamesB says:

    Fiona, cpt o here. Remember you from before somewhere else.
    I do accept that lawyers are frequently acrimony escalating as much or even more so then the comments made which you quote which I also believe were.
    How to take the acrimony out? Ohh I sooo wish I knew the answer to that one. Removing UB petitions has to be a start. They should do that. Fixed priced pre nups and divorces also perhaps.
    I try not to see my maintenance payments as paracital, but being an nrp isn’t up to much tbh, all I get is insulted by professionals and politicians and not much contact or respect and charged also.
    I do see my children but it is difficult with a hostile ex. I do also pay for them. I do also struggle to live. I do also resent being told that it is best. Like I see, oh I m all for reducing acrimony. But to be fair as I have said before elsewhere because you have a point doesn’t mean that ‘friend’ doesn’t. Can’t you be friends and less acrimonious and come up with a plan, that would be nice. I like to see men and women getting on and don’t like divorce turning them against each other.

  19. JamesB says:

    P.S. I went into court with a MF. It depends on the MF. I suggest nothing works in court. By the time you have got there the system has failed sadly. I’m still suffering ptsd for being there over 50 times over 45 in person, has really upset me and the rest of my life. I am trying to get over it and am still on anti depressants and counselling about it. Even the Judges several times admitted that the law was failing us, and did fail us (me and my ex), faced with a demented ex father in law instructing the lawyers to make unrealistic offers and with me unable to afford representation. Thus we kept going until I went mad, started losing and gave up. That is not right or fair, and perhaps I am being acrimonious, but, I have given some ideas and would be nice to have less acrimony and I think you know my story on fees, but for those who don’t…
    I was quoted £3.5k or a revised quote every 6 months or if they exceed that. The following year I was presented with a bill over £12k without revised quote, then when I didn’t pay I was sued. I went to the Law society and the lawyers were in breach of their own terms and conditions. Funnily enough, then they didn’t want that coming out in court and settled. The law society recommended a fine of a couple of hundred pounds though and were not very good either. I think I need to go back to counselling again. It probably isn’t doing me good dragging this all up again.
    To conclude the story the AR order didn’t settle capital or income or contact and keep having to go back, to the HMLR ombudsman and the family court for maintenance. I started losing costs orders and me and my disabled father had to pay the other sides lawyers because we couldn’t really afford our own or to go to court, but I needed to be off the mortgage and a realistic amount of contact (failed to get either from court and lost costs in the process) the only thing I managed was to get the csa to revalue maintenance down, but I am still skint from all the lawyers costs. That explains why I am reluctant to pay. The moral of the story, well, at the risk of being acrimonious, probably beware of the law. I am not in a rush to repeat the experience or get married again (Im still in my thirties) and think I am one of many and many who wont married. Now I think you all know where I am coming from, I will go and rest, is a difficult time and the country is struggling also.

  20. JamesB says:

    P.S. I get one overnight every other weekend and an ex who still wont talk to me and we split in 2004. Its been awful, so when I read the celebrity smiles and happy divorces it makes me cringe, mine has been bad and I think many other people have similar experiences and I do not think the lawyers or courts helped. Strewth I have become bad and someone who I did not want to become, I have just realised, I don’t want to be like this, going on about it so long after I need to move on and lie down, regards to all.

  21. JamesB says:

    I will comment re : “more understanding and tolerance will be extended to SRLs.”
    I have found Judges to be entirely disrespectful and condescending and unhelpful and hateful towards me as a SRL. They stopped listening each time I drew a breath to talk and started listening each time the lawyer on the other side drew a breath to talk, I remain disgusted and traumatised by the whole experience of them courts for contact and AR housing, etc. Cafcass also didn’t listen to me as soon as ex claimed I was an abuser. No evidence ever for that either.

  22. JamesB says:

    I think the practice of lawyers acting on the balance of probabilities and where there is no evidence persuading the judge something isn’t working and needs to be changed so that it is avoided as much as possible. Pre nups would do that and I suggest economical, fixed priced, easily enforceable pre nups should be introduced, my significant contribution to the debate. I wish that they would happen and vested professional interests dont stop that, I can’t think what else it is preventing it. Also that vested interest is self defeating as people will stop marrying and using solicitors if they find them too expensive and they will lose business anyway as Fiona rightly says, needs changing. I have made my recommendation.

  23. JamesB says:

    SomeTimes It Doesnt Work :-).

  24. Yvie says:

    I take the point that lawyers are there to represent their clients and get the best possible outcome for them.
    However, in the Family Courts, surely its not just about winning the case for the client. The welfare of the children is paramount and perhaps in an effort to ensure victory for their client, the welfare of the child can lose its central limportance and become a secondary consideration.
    I am of the opinion that there are certain types of solicitor who will encourage dubious applications and even suggest them to their client. They are forceful and repetitive in citing allegations made to them by their clients. As you rightly say, Marilyn, they have no knowledge of whether these allegations are true or false. If both the solicitors and their clients were accountable in law for the validity of these allegations, perhaps they would be less hasty in making them. However, they know that in the Family Courts they are quite safe in vilifying the other side as no action is likely to be taken. Perhaps if their victims had the right to sue and claim costs more care would be taken before accusations were made.

  25. JamesB says:

    I like that last sentence and idea, is a very good one.

  26. Friend says:

    “Perhaps if their victims had the right to sue and claim costs more care would be taken before accusations were made.”
    Yes, or perhaps if this was all heard in a criminal court, where allegations belong…
    The problem here though is that the family law and its thuggery has so reduced women to sexual objects, child-bearers and primary carers made to be dependent on men that the thought of sending a mom to jail or fining her just doesn’t work.

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