The Legal Ombudsman has published its report: “The price of separation: Divorce related legal complaints and their causes”.
The report shows that family law disputes currently give rise to more complaints to the Legal Ombudsman than any other type of dispute. Around 18% of complaints investigated are about family and divorce law. Of these, just over 50% are related to divorce.
The purpose of the report is to attempt to cast some light on why divorce leads to higher levels of dissatisfaction and more complaints than other areas of legal services.
Importantly, both for the consumer and also the divorce lawyer, what can be done to avoid finding themselves in disputes about the service which has been provided? How both parties can protect themselves against deepening the stress of relationship breakdown following a divorce and to avoid a subsequent dispute between the divorce lawyer and customer? And how will the coming changes to the legal sector, legislative, administrative and financial – impact on the situation?
It goes without saying that a divorce can be a deeply and emotional event. There are some obvious reasons why divorce gives rise to a higher number of complaints therefore. Even in the most straightforward of separations, there are likely to be feelings of sadness, disappointment and guilt. Strong emotions can naturally colour and shape a client’s approach to their legal service on divorce or separation.
There are also a number of pressures whether involving a family home, maintenance, children and so on. The divorce process itself can often be seen as unhelpful and opaque.
A good divorce and family lawyer should be able to guide a client sensitively through the emotional and practical minefield that is the divorce process, enabling them to focus on what is in their best interest. It is often a concern where the quality of service falls short. There can be a variety of reasons for this.
Without a doubt, the largest area for complaints on divorce is cost. The Legal Ombudsman reports that 25% of divorce complaints that they deal with are in relation to this issue.
It is vital that a divorce lawyer and client work together to manage the cost of the service. Clear communication and mutual trust are key. If the divorce lawyer does not appreciate the financial pressures on the client, or the client fails to keep an eye on the costs as they accumulate, the result can be that the divorce lawyer ends up presenting the client with a bill far higher than they expected and which they simply cannot pay.
A family and divorce lawyer should provide a client with an estimate of costs and it is essential that the divorce lawyer keeps the client regularly updated as costs mount.
Law is a vocation, and here, with divorce lawyers bound by a professional obligation to act in the best interests of their client.
A key role to this is to save a client from themselves often, to guide them away from a course of action which may be destructive for them and persuade them to adopt a strategy with the best chance of enabling them to achieve their objectives.
In the case of divorce, that may be to counsel them against prolonging the case or fighting an unwinnable fight: persuading them that although they are angry and upset at their spouse’s behaviour, a court may not be the best place to fight out those emotions.
Law is also a business; and divorce lawyers are in an increasingly competitive and financially challenging market. This is also in a context where charging is usually still done on the basis of time spent rather than results achieved, time spent lending a supportive ear and corresponding with the other side soon mounts up in billable costs.
Brutally put, cases which result in lengthy court hearings are often more profitable than cases which settle early.
For the divorce lawyer there are therefore two pressures: the vocational and the financial. Inevitably this can result in tension.
Good divorce lawyers, and whom should be the majority, manage these tensions with admirable deftness. With experience, a good divorce lawyer learns the prioritise the need to help clients manage the case, to look at the costs, risks and the benefit which may be achieved; and to act proportionally.
Around 18% of divorce related complaints are about the divorce lawyer failing to provide adequate legal service. The Legal Ombudsman found that the key issue was often the poor standard of information provided to the client. Sometimes this could be lack of care and attention which could have serious consequences. On other occasions it could be that the actual lawyer knows very little about family and divorce law. It is often important to seek advice from a specialist divorce lawyer.
Divorce and family law market
Society is ever changing and certainly with in the field of family and divorce law, there have been a number of changes in the recent years.
From the 1 April 2013, there are going to be significant changes to legal aid.
All these changes will result an increased pressure on divorce lawyers and consumers/clients. The removal of legal aid will inevitably put pressure on divorce lawyers to come up with ways of bridging the affordability gap for many people seeking a divorce.
Fixed price services for divorce will at least give clients a different option to consider when managing a modest budget, while online divorce packages may help to reduce costs by cutting down on overheads.
Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to all of these services and we are being to see the emergence of complex financing and legal service structures, with divorce being funded by cheap loans or insurance products, there are dangers of misspelling and hidden costs.
There is also the danger of clients being confused about where to turn for help if they experience problems.
For some people, DIY or online divorce solutions will be increasingly attractive. This may also lead to an increasing number of people representing themselves in Court which brings its own problems in terms of constraints and pressure on the court system, to include significant delays.
The Ministry of Justice has recently announced that an additional £10 million will be made available to help separating couples and avoid court battles where possible through increased access to mediation. This assumes that couples can come to some agreement about how matrimonial assets and children matters can be resolved.
In my experience of family law cases over many years, much really depends on the issues in the case, the complexities or not and, very importantly, the individual parties to it.
Unfortunately, there will always be complaints and as the Legal Ombudsman have found, this appears more in the area of divorce law than any other area of law. However, it is possible for divorce lawyers and clients to manage the risks inherent in divorce better.
For the divorce lawyer, more work can be done to reduce complaints about costs, giving proper estimates, updating clients regularly on costs, encouraging clients to manage costs better themselves, ensuring that they put the interests of the client first: all of these are vital to avoiding complaints.
For those clients seeking divorce, the lessons are equally important. As hard as it must be to keep emotions in check, the lessons from the Legal Ombudsman’s report all point towards the necessity for divorcing couples to try. Taking an objective approach and settling realistically at the start of the case could be the difference between £10,000 and £50,000 worth of legal fees.
It is also very prudent for clients to keep tabs on how much they are spending throughout a case and to think carefully about what work they are committing themselves to paying for.
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.