Marilyn Stowe talks: do you need a good lawyer?

Family Law|July 6th 2016

This post came about for a number of different reasons, but my reaction to them all gave me food for thought and helped crystallise in my mind what I wanted to say today.

First of all, there was a three part series on BBC2 Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator, which I have previously described as car crash TV. The show thankfully ended its awful run last night. I watched the first episode and found it utterly dreadful. I then gave the second a miss and switched off after a few minutes during the third. It just wasn’t for me. I would NEVER put my clients up to be torn down on TV and on social media. Reading comments about the programme on many sites I was appalled at the freedom people think they now have to be so unrestrained and utterly foul towards others. And that brings me to another point. Social media appears to be fast replacing the court room for many people – but there is one crucial difference: they feel free to judge others in a way they never would when a court room and judge was available to all. Now they aren’t sadly and the result is this malaise of hatred, unhappiness and general nastiness now so visible on the web: the blame game played with people of different-coloured skin or accents, the vast chasm there clearly is between those perceived as haves and those perceived as have nots. It has been driven, at least in part I am sure, by the removal from the less well-off of access to justice. And I’m afraid it shows. Maybe this injustice of no justice will one day soon be put right by a new ‘caring and sharing’ government. We can always hold our breath and wait to see.

But I digress.

It was with enormous sympathy for those hapless people, captive victims of social media, that I tried again last night to watch and after a few minutes, simply switched off. LAW! LAW! LAW! I practically wanted to jump through the TV screen, the answers to the particular problem I watched was so obvious to me. Instead, all the show’s focus was on the emotions of the participants. And I, a lawyer trained to carry out and apply the rule of law, have now reached the conclusion that I simply cannot stand to see family law problems tackled any other way than through lawyers, legally guided alternative dispute resolution, or, if necessary, the court room.

And then there was inspiration number two. Reports have been published on the blog recently stating that around ten per cent of all divorcing couples now use unqualified practitioners and divorce websites. Meanwhile, thousands of people with family law problems are ignoring MIAMs and going straight to court. I won’t waste your time explaining what a MIAM is yet again, save to note that it’s a compulsory mediation information meeting. The public had made  it crystal clear that they want ACCESS TO JUSTICE. In big capital letters. To that I would only that, to make it work, they also NEED A LAWYER via LEGAL AID.

Thirdly and finally, there were a few comments left on this blog. “All very well” said one person, “but what if you use a lawyer and the lawyer is useless. Then what?

Mind made up, I decided to say what I have to say on the topic. Let’s  see if you agree or disagree. I’ve been pretty frank but as you will all know by now, that’s who I am.

I’m a trained lawyer. I worked damn hard to become one. I’ve worked damn hard through all my professional career to be a good one. I constantly check and cross- check because that’s also who I am. And now I have a firm in which every single employee cares about our clients and the outcomes they experience. So it’s up to you. How lucky do you feel? You pay your money and you make your choice.



Video Transcript

Hello. My blog this week has been carrying stories about people who provide legal services to those who need family law advice but are not regulated. These might be online divorce providers or they might provide mediation services dealing with family law issues but they are not qualified lawyers, albeit they are qualified mediators. I have been arguing strongly that I think it is very important that when you do have a family law issue, you do actually take advice from a lawyer; a qualified lawyer. That doesn’t mean to say that the lawyer will be very good.

I remember when I qualified as a lawyer which was a very long time ago, well over 30 years ago, and I remember the day I qualified having studied and taken exams for six and a half years and then worked as a law lecturer at a French university for a year. On the day I qualified, I remember not being euphoric, all that studying and exams and things were behind me but actually frightened. I was frightened because the realisation had hit home very quickly that people’s lives were literally in my hands and they were looking to me to help them through the toughest part of their life. I took that obligation extremely seriously and I think it is very important, when you are choosing somebody, to help you through what could be the toughest time of your life that you research the person and find out who they are.

Should I research my lawyer?

A few months ago, people who follow me on Twitter will know that I actually had an arthroscopy on my knee caused by too many years of running. Before I went to see the consultant, I checked him out. I didn’t just go simply on word of worth, simply on reputation; he did have a great reputation but I actually had a look at the work he had been producing from a written perspective. I saw that this guy had been lecturing really, really recently and very frequently and had written a lot of work that I thought looked good. So, I thought, yes, this is the man for me. The same thing applies to lawyers. Lawyers in my experience all think they are brilliant; I haven’t met one who admits to being plagued by the same level of self-doubt that I still have. It is fine but on the other hand you have really got to think about, is this a person I really trust to deal with this, so check them out. Have a look; have they produced anything recently that is academic? That is intellectual? That shows an understanding of current law.

In my firm, I am very hot about this and the blog speaks for itself. Every case that comes out appears either as a note or it is written about on the blog. New law is on the blog, new books come out and if we think that it is worth pushing them, we will so the public can see what they are getting. I think that is very important because somebody has written to the blog and said well alright, you instruct a solicitor but suppose the solicitor doesn’t do a great job, then what?

What if my solicitor doesn’t do a good job?

Well the difference between instructing a qualified lawyer and somebody who isn’t, is that you do actually have redress. You can go through the firm’s complaints procedure and you can also go to the legal ombudsmen if you are not happy and believe me, the legal ombudsmen, you don’t take them on likely if you are a lawyer. If you have made a mistake, the best thing to do is hold your hands up and get it sorted because they will point out if you have made a mistake. If you want to check out the firm, you go to the legal ombudsmen website and have a look at the decisions they have made against lots and lots of firm and see whether the firm you think of instructing is there and what their record looks like. It is an indicator.

So, overall, to people who think is it really worth it? My advice is I wouldn’t go to somebody who isn’t a dentist to look at my teeth. I wouldn’t go to someone who isn’t a doctor to diagnose or help treat a medical condition. If I have a family law problem, I want a qualified lawyer to help me and I want to know if they have been negligent, there is an insurance policy behind them, which with qualified lawyers there has to be because that is part of the regulation. If I have a concern ultimately about the bill, I have a right of redress to the legal ombudsmen. In my view, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Thank you.

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

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  1. The Devil's Advocate says:

    Lawyers are technicians of legislation. As mechanics are trained in the specific way to mend cars. The difference is very little part from only Mercedes Benz and Rolls Royce receive the same basic income as solicitors. .
    The trouble is legislation used to attempt to resolve County Court issues in respect to families are anachronistic and irrelevant now that our understanding of family behaviour and social structure have changed vastly over the last twenty five years and the legislation has completely failed and in many ways continues to support the full plethora of abuse against children and families. Unfortunately we are not as civilized as other countries such as Brazil and Mexico whose advanced understanding of children’s real factual interests are light years advanced as ours and others even in the EU (and should we not exist Brexit). Only Finland is “light years” ahead of us in the anti-child abuse legislation.
    Sorry Marilyn……but facts!

  2. spinner says:

    If I had a heart attack I would seek a doctor but if I had a headache I would go to the shop and read the label of an appropriate product and if I needed some help I would ask. Most people think their cases are at the heart attack level but in reality they are at the headache level and with some reading and some forum action can get most if not all of the way there in their case themselves or with the help of one of these third parties. Presenting in court is a different issue and I did that myself but if I was to do it again I would hire a barrister directly, no need of solicitors.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Spinner
      Watching the programme I was struck by one thing in particular. The lack of informed advise. The blind lead the blind. You can go to a chemist and read the label and hope it works because you’ve self diagnosed and you’ve got the right product. If it’s minor that’s probably OK but of course it might not be. But something that will change the course of your life? You rely on you? Pretty arrogant of you?
      What people aren’t being told in mediation is the law. Consider the relevance of the new Stamp Duty Land Tax to a purchase. Consider the various different ways of disposing of a property, capitalisation of spousal maintenance, adding weight to the various Section 25 factors to achieve a nuanced outcome. Just a few things that a lawyer would think about but you would deal with by faith in you.
      As I say at the end it’s about whether you feel lucky. Most cases where solicitors are involved don’t actually get to a final hearing. They settle. They settle because in those cases solicitors do reach an informed agreement for their clients and the proof of that is in the sky rocketing numbers of cases in court:- self represented litigants are doing it themselves. I agree that a barrister is appropriate for a final hearing because advocacy is their day job.

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