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Comment on divorce & family law

Government advice to arrange your own divorce misleading

The Government’s own website now appears to be encouraging people to arrange their own divorce but there is plenty of advice it is not giving, such as the inherent dangers in doing this without taking legal advice.

The Government’s website has recently been updated and now appears to be actively encouraging people to arrange their own divorce.  It also flags the fact that mediation can help resolve dispute over issues like finances and what happens with the children – and that is a positive move. However, suggesting that it is straightforward to sort out the legal issues around divorce without engaging a solicitor is fraught with danger.

Now, we would say that, wouldn’t we? We are realistic though. We realise that changes to Legal Aid have led to a huge increase in people acting as Litigants in Person (LiPs) and those trying to save money on divorce by not taking legal advice. This is natural. However, the pitfalls of this approach have not been clearly communicated and this makes it impossible for people to make properly informed choices on the route that is best for them. In a nutshell, cutting out legal advice at the start of the process may end up costing them dearly when the settlement is agreed.

There is a general move by the Government to encourage people to settle their divorce without involving the courts. This keeps more court time free. This is an understandable motive but people still need to be advised by trained professionals on the best course for them rather than choosing a particular one by default. There’s a real danger that people go through the legal process without understanding the consequences. For instance, when the Government site (almost in passing) says you agree how you’ll split up property, pensions etc, that assumes a number of things:

  1. People are open and honest about their finances – in our experience that isn’t always the case and often one party has always controlled the finances in a relationship and the other person has little or no knowledge about the details
  2. People understand the true long-term value of something like a pension versus the value of a more tangible asset, like a house
  3. People want to be fair to each other
  4. They have thought about the longer term consequences. For instance, all very well letting them stay in the house with the kids but what about when they meet a new partner, will your view change and might it be too late then to do anything about it?

The experience of our team of divorce lawyers is that people don’t understand the legal process, or the forms involved. This is clearly demonstrated by the number of forms that get returned by the courts because they are incorrectly completed and the number of calls we get each week from people who ‘just want help with the forms’  or ‘need someone to explain’ what the letters they have received from the court actually mean.

Each month we handle over 300 enquiries. I would guess up to 20 per cent of these are from people who are trying to arrange a divorce themselves and need help. It’s not as simple as they thought, or as the Government website is making out.

Tellingly as well, how can people “agree” on a settlement and children arrangements if they don’t know what the law, made by the Government, suggests they should have?

People can cut back on fees around a divorce in a number of ways but going it alone and cutting out legal advice altogether is not sound advice – whether it comes from the Government or that annoying bloke down the pub.

Andrew Woolley
Divorce & family solicitor

Blog Author - Andrew Woolley

Andrew WoolleyAndrew Woolley

Andrew is the owner and managing partner of Woolley & Co. He regularly offers comments and views on a range of family law issues.

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