Scrapping legal aid: how to cut the cost of divorce
The changes, affecting couples in England and Wales, came into force on 1 April after the Government said it wanted to safeguard legal aid “for those who really need it”.
In today’s age of austerity, this is an obvious way to ease the strain on the public purse. However, removing legal aid for all but the most serious family matters will leave many couples with a hefty bill or the prospect of going it alone.
The changes will be a particular knock-back for spouses who have no independent income of their own – those who have opted to stay at home to look after the kids, for example.
“Such people are usually, though not always, women. If the financially stronger spouse refuses to be fair, then lack of access to the courts is a serious problem,” says Bik Wong, a family solicitor at Hubbard Pegman and Whitney LLP.
Resolution, the UK’s largest association of family law practitioners, has repeatedly warned of the devastating effects of the legal aid cuts, which will result in 200,000 people a year being denied access to justice.
However, despite the withdrawal of legal aid, divorce doesn’t have to be a huge financial burden. If you’re going through a separation or divorce, there are ways to avoid expensive legal bills.
There is a common misconception that you need a solicitor to get a divorce. If you simply want to dissolve a marriage or civil partnership and can agree on how assets will be divided you can conduct your own divorce by essentially filling out the correct forms which are free to download from www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk.
If you’re concerned about completing the do-it-yourself divorce forms, there are various online companies that will complete them for you for a fee. Divorce Online and Quickie Divorce UK are just two examples of firms offering packages from as little as £37.
However, these types of services are only suitable for uncontested divorces. When the two parties do not agree on important matters such as children, houses or finances, legal advice needs to be taken especially if the divorce ends up in court.
While instructing a solicitor is far from cheap, especially compared to the DIY option, the fees could be worthwhile in the long run. And divorce lawyers may not be as extortionate as you’d think.
“People often think that going to a lawyer costs tens of thousands of pounds. It certainly can, but only if you fight about everything,” says Peter Martin, a partner and head of the family department at OGR Stock Denton LLP.
Many law firms will now do a fixed price divorce in which the cost of the legal fees will be around £500 plus VAT and court fees. The final figure is usually just under £1,000. The advantage is you will meet face-to-face with a specialist lawyer who will deal with all matters.
Another possibility is to make an agreement with a law firm that your fees will be met from the financial agreement at the end of the case. This is called the Sears Tooth agreement.
If you’re going through a divorce, disagree with your partner, but want to avoid the trauma of court, there are other options.
Mediators are usually but not always lawyers who are specially trained to help parties resolve disputes over all issues faced by separating couples, or specific issues such as arrangements for any children. A mediator will meet with you and your partner together and will help you come to an agreement on any issues you do not agree on.
Under the collaborative law process, each person appoints their own collaboratively trained lawyer and you and your respective lawyers all meet together to work things out face to face. Both of you will have your lawyer by your side throughout the process and so you will have their support and legal advice as you go.
You and your lawyers sign an agreement that commits you to trying to resolve the issues without going to court and prevents them from representing you in court if the collaborative process breaks down. That means all are absolutely committed to finding the best solutions by agreement, rather than through court proceedings.
In family arbitration you and your partner appoint an arbitrator, who will make a decision that will be final and binding between the parties, on any financial and property disputes arising from family relationships. This is different to mediation where you and your partner are the ones that come to a final agreement.