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A challenge to family law services: one year on

In March 2012 the Co-Operative Legal Services (CLS) became one of the first ABS in the country.

Incidentally, and somewhat of a distant memory, but The Lawyer actually reported back on 7 November 2011 that the Co-Op had recruited three family lawyers to kick start this family law venture.

This followed the Legal Services Act and ‘alternative business structures’ (ABS) who allows organisations (with regulatory approval) to provide legal services.

And just under 12 months ago the Guardian reported, on 28 May 2012, that the CLS was planning to recruit 3,000 lawyers to compete with general high street solicitors.

This is interesting time not only because the CLS/Co-Op and other organisations can provide family law services but also, in this ever changing legal market, what has actually happened a year on and what has it meant to the high street and other nice practices, such as my firm?

So in March 2013, and having launched the family law arm in November 2012, the CLS has published its results. The results, listed under ‘specialist businesses’, show that in the year ending 5 January 2013 revenue from the legal services arm of CLS rose by 12.8% to £33M generating a pre-tax profit of £26,000.

The obvious comment is that is a massive turnover for a negligible profit.

I think if the CLS and the like think this is still worthwhile and can continue to take the investment risk, there will always be a place for a conveyor belt legal service should the CLS; and if left to continue, the Co-Op and other ABS companies will do the same to the high street solicitor as the supermarkets have done to the high street itself. Some of the more traditional law firms have already gone out of business.

A challenge to the traditional way of doing something always has to be welcomed and embraced. Society is ever changing and the X and Y generations will, in the future, not wish to speak to lawyer let only see one. The internet will be a driver for legal services and access to information is key.

Access to justice, however, should not be taken lightly.

My approach has always to look at the business angle but never to forget that a solicitor is here to provide a service to the community and beyond. You cannot put a price on this.

From 1 April 2013 we are also to see the demise (almost) of legal aid. It is foreseeable that many more people will turn to the internet for free information, online service, DIY or ‘pay as you go’ advice.

One size does not fit all however.

On a day to day level, I am asked occasionally by prospective clients why an online divorce can be done for as little as £37 compared to a solicitors’ quote of, say, £500-600 + vat plus court fees totalling (presently) £380. I have blogged about this before www.family-law.co.uk/blog/internet-divorce-pay-for/ but I think the answer lies on what the online quote actually means and what service, or level of service, is provided.

An internet divorce is not going to conclude all divorce, financial and any children issues for £37 as one online provider suggests. It would be wholly naive to think so.

Sites go on to say that for £67 you get the divorce forms. All I’d say to that is watch out! The divorce forms are actually free from the divorce court’s own website; and the wording is careful by saying a divorce can be initiated for £37. It does not actually say concluded and there is no mention of the court fees which total £385 (and which are always payable unless an exemption applies).

Time will tell.

For those cases which are straightforward, agreed and involve little or no assets then I think an online service is well suited. If, however, a divorce case is more complicated, for example, given the stances of the couple, the assets and income at stake, any international element, children issues etc then bespoke legal advice is almost always required. Family law solicitors will often provide a free initial appointment and the can attempt to give a best or initial cost estimate and the various option in terms of how to proceed.

Put bluntly, a divorce (sadly) is a means to an end. It is a process and like putting up some shelves, almost anyone can have a go. Some shelves will stay up and some will fall but most will be fine. But with the matrimonial finances or children issues, would you be prepared to build your own house? A cheap divorce could have a significant and negative impact on what you actually end up with.

Or to put it another way the idiom ‘you get what you pay for’ rings true.

And perhaps ringing truer still is the adage (as I’ve said before) ‘a man who acts for himself has a fool for a client’ and meaning that such a party lacks objectivity and cannot act sensibly.

The approach to provide divorce and family law services has to be modern, forward thinking and cost effective. I have no doubt about that. Care and attention is always needed and to look at all of this commercially (where possible) and proportionately.

Maguire Family Law is a specialist firm of Family Law and Divorce Law solicitors based in Wilmslow, Cheshire. We offer legal advice to parties going through a divorce including the financial issues which flow from this and children matters including child maintenance.

We can also advise on Schedule1 Children Act 1989 applications.

We advise clients in the Wilmslow area and also to the surrounding areas of Alderley Edge, Bramhall, Hale, Altrincham, Manchester and the North West. We are also able to act for clients nationally and internationally subject to the jurisdiction of England and Wales. For advice please contact James Maguire by telephone +44 (0) 1625 529456 or by email james.maguire@family-law.

For specialist advice on any family law related issue contact Maguire Family Law by email: james.maguire@family-law.co.uk or telephone:

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