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Divorce with dignity

Divorce is unfortunately a booming industry both in the UK and here in Jersey, and all too often the legal costs involved can be financially disastrous for the couple involved.

Research in the UK suggests that the average legal fees for bringing the marriage to an end and sorting out all the issues to do with money and children are £13,000 for each person.  There are no similar statistics in Jersey, but with lawyer’s charge-out rates being comparable to those in London, it is difficult to see how this would be less. Therefore, the average couple could be spending in excess of £26,000 of their joint funds on legal fees.  Where matters are protracted, this could easily be doubled. It is also true that the financial cost is often dwarfed by the emotional turmoil for both parties and the children involved.

It is against this background that I have often been asked whether anyone can have a happy divorce. My answer is that although divorce is never a happy event, with the right legal advice and support, both parties can come out of the process with dignity and emerge feeling that they have caused as little damage to themselves and their children as possible, both emotionally and financially.

How can dignity be achieved during such a stressful process for all involved? My top tips would be as follows:

  1. Choose your lawyer with care: There are now many law firms in Jersey who say that they practice family law. Do your research and, if possible, use a lawyer that is known for being an expert in this area of law. Don’t automatically assume that just because your lawyer was good at buying your house he or she will be competent in dealing with family law. Just as you would not go to the same specialist at the hospital for all ailments, nowadays lawyers tend to specialise in certain legal areas. I would also suggest that you make sure that your chosen lawyer is a member of Resolution and is qualified in dealing with collaborative law and/or mediation. In addition, find out the legal qualifications of the person you are seeing and be wary if they do not hold a recognised legal qualification.
  2. Stay informed: As your case progresses, ensure that your lawyer is keeping you completely informed of what is happening. If you find the legal jargon baffling then don’t be afraid to ask what is meant. This is particualrly important once you become involved in any court processes.
  3. Keep check on all correspondence: Make sure that your lawyer is not being aggressive in correspondence to the other party or his/her lawyer. This may make you feel better initially, but it will almost certainly not help in the longer term, as the person on the receiving end will inevitably feel angry and hurt, causing tensions to escalate.
  4. Financial information: Do all you can to produce any financial information that your lawyer is asking you for in a timely manner. So many financial settlements take longer than necessary and incur excessive costs simply because paperwork such as bank statements have been lost or destroyed. Avoid this scenario by keeping every bit of financial information in case you need to produce it.
  5. Alternative Dispute Resolution: Make sure that right from your first appointment with your lawyer the term ‘alternative dispute resolution’ is explained to you. This will give you the necessary information to enable you to make decisions about whether your case is suitable for collaborative law or mediation.

Collaborative law or mediation

The terms collaborative law or mediation are very much the flavour of the day in family law circles and the UK Government, within its Family Justice Review, strongly encourages mediation in particular.

In Jersey, there are a number of family lawyers who are trained collaborative lawyers. This enables dialogue to take place at a very early stage between the lawyers acting for the couple concerned and settlement is reached during a series of meetings between the couple and their lawyers. This will often result in matters being finalised more quickly as they will be kept away from the court process. Legal bills will hopefully be less and most importantly, both parties will feel that they have been treated with respect by the other.

Mediation is also becoming more common in Jersey.  Many cases can be resolved through the Jersey Family Mediation Service, but always make sure that you take some legal advice from a family lawyer first. In cases involving more assets, or more complex legal issues such as inheritance, this will take the form of what is called ‘directed’ or ‘lawyer led’ mediation. This is encouraged more and more by the family court here as, in the majority of cases in my experience, agreement will be reached at the mediation and therefore lengthy and incredibly expensive final hearings before the court will be avoided. The couple will have their lawyer with them during the mediation and an independent lawyer mediator (usually from the UK) will conduct the process. Many couples will feel that they have reached ownership of the agreement after the conclusion of mediation and will still have some respect for their partner. Mediation will not be the solution in all cases but it is certainly something that should be considered in the majority of cases.

For those going through divorce, it is almost impossible to separate the legal process from the emotion of what, for them, is a horrible experience. However, it can be made easier by taking expert advice and being aware that divorce does not have to turn into a Kramer v Kramer experience with even more heartbreak as the result.

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