This week is the second Family Dispute Resolution Week held by Resolution, the association of family lawyers “committed to the constructive resolution of family disputes”. To coincide with this, Resolution has published an advice guide for those faced with relationship breakdown, separation and divorce.
Entitled Separating together: Your options for separation and divorce, the guide is aimed at “people who want to separate while working cooperatively with their former partner”. To this end the guide “sets out the techniques you can use to reduce conflict” during separation or divorce.
The guide begins with a foreword by Lord McNally, the Minister of State for Justice. Needless to say, he is enthusiastic about promoting alternatives to court, which the government cynically expects to fill the gaping hole left by the abolition of legal aid. He tells us that he wants “to ensure that non-court alternatives such as mediation become the first resort for separating couples, with court being the last resort”, as if any family lawyer worth their salt hasn’t been telling this to their clients for the last twenty years.
The rest of the guide comprises four sections: ‘what you should do’, ‘putting children first’, ‘the options available to resolve disputes’ and ‘where else to go for help’. I shall deal with each in turn.
So, what should you do when faced with separation or divorce? Well, surprise, surprise the guide tells you to contact a Resolution member. You are also advised that legal aid is still available for mediation – I counted at least four occasions when the guide imparted this information.
The next section of the guide explains, in a way verging on the patronising, that: “The end of your relationship will be a difficult time for you, but if you have children it may be even more difficult for them.” You are then given a series of ‘tips for talking to your children’, such as to: “Talk in general terms, like “mum and dad have decided that we would be happier living in different homes””.
Moving swiftly on, the next section comprises the real ‘meat’ of the guide, setting out the various methods available to resolve disputes on separation or divorce. These are: mediation, collaborative law, arbitration, direct negotiation between the parties, solicitor negotiations and lastly, horror of horrors, going to court. The guide inevitably talks up the non-court alternatives, failing to mention, for example, that mediation isn’t appropriate in all cases and can just lead to further expense and delay if unsuccessful. It also fails to mention that collaborative law and arbitration may not be available in your area.
Finally, the guide gives a brief list of other organisations that can offer further information and support. I could criticise it for missing certain organisations out, but the guide does admit that there are a huge range of such organisations, and the list is therefore just a starting-point.
So there we are. If all of the above seems a little negative, don’t let the opinion of this jaded old family lawyer put you off what is still a useful guide. After all, I was a member of Resolution myself for the best part of twenty years.
John Bolch is family law commentator