In the final part of our series, Stowe Family Law Senior Partner Marilyn Stowe reflects on significant legal developments over the last twelve months.
One of the most encouraging developments in family law for me over the last year has been the increasing profile of arbitration, a firmer and more effective alternative to mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution.
The current government has been fixated on mediation for some time now. For them it is clearly a cheap, one-size-fits-all alternative to legally aided court action, but whatever ministers might hope, the fact remains that mediation is simply not a panacea. It requires both parties to be receptive and willing to participate in the process for one thing, it will only work if undertaken at the right stage for another, and it cannot be legally enforced.
Arbitration, by contrast, is overseen by a fully qualified legal professional throughout. It usually costs less than court action, while the decisions reached are binding in a court of law. And now, at last, arbitration seems to be shedding its curious obscurity and its potential in the post legal aid era is attracting some overdue attention.
Such high profile legal figures as retired High Court judge Sir Peter Singer, District Judge (and qualified arbitrator) Alexander Chancellor and even Sir James Munby himself have all highlighted the potential and effectiveness of arbitration.
As one of the first solicitors in the country to qualify as an arbitrator, I welcome this. Could 2015 be the year arbitration finally enters the mainstream?
Meanwhile, the end of the year was also enlivened for me by the case of J v J, a high net worth divorce in which the redoubtable High Court Judge Mr Justice Mostyn had some forthright words for the couple’s hapless counsel, who had bombarded him a with a profusion of legal documents and overseen a costs bill which had by then ballooned to a startling £700,000.
His Lordship went to make a controversial call for the introduction of fixed fees in such cases – a call he repeated at a subsequent commercial arbitration seminar which I attended with my son Ben.
Mr Justice Mostyn is a fine judge and I’m sure his intentions are good. But as I argued here, I simply do not believe that fixed fees reflect the realities of running a commercial law practice, nor the complexities of life on the frontline managing clients’ varying demands, needs and perspectives.
It will be intriguing to see what becomes of the fixed fees controversy next year.