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Family Law Blog

Comment on divorce & family law 

Americans give us the wrong divorce impression - or is it the right one?

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There seemed to be a sudden proliferation of US TV series a few years ago based around law practices. Ally McBeal, LA Law, JAG, that sort of thing. This seems to have evolved now into more legal investigation programmes, such as CSI, NCIS, and other acronyms. Add to these very popular shows the sheer number of films that include some element of legal process, either a criminal investigation, court case or simply “cops on the edge”, and you can see there is a pretty powerful platform there from which to influence the public’s views on the legal process. In fact, it would be surprising if viewers, including us in the UK, were not to think they knew a bit about how the legal system works based on their favourite TV shows and films.

The difficulty, of course, is that television and film is not real life – particularly when it is based in the United States. So what someone sees on screen does not necessarily have a great basis in reality. This can give rise to unrealistic expectations and a skewed view of how the family court system (and criminal as well, of course) in this country works.

For instance, you may see on screen two clients battling it out across a conference table with their lawyers at their side, throwing offers backwards and forwards and, ultimately, reaching agreement just as the judge calls them into the court room, negating the need for a hearing. Leaving aside the last minute tension created for dramatic effect, this is effectively collaborative law. The layman could be forgiven for thinking that this is the norm. It is not – but it can be a very effective way to settle cases. The trouble is that in the UK, there is not widespread take-up of collaborative law still. It needs two specially trained collaborative lawyers to be retained by the clients who agree to do everything possible to reach a settlement without going to court. Unfortunately some people don’t want to act like adults and work towards a sensible conclusion but are determined to push all the way until a court makes the decision for them. Also, there are not collaborative lawyers in every firm so the simple truth is that both sides may not have natural access to one.

In England and Wales, reaching a settlement on divorce relating to assets or children is normally a lengthy exchange of views via letter rather than face-to-face “dealing”. Collaborative law settlements are slowly growing, but are certainly not the norm. There is a third method, where we do have four-way discussions with both lawyers and their clients in a room. It is not a formal collaboration but can help achieve the ultimate goal of reaching an agreement everyone can live with while keeping the time it takes down and staying away from courts and the associated fees. This depends though on the right clients – and the right family lawyers.

I have to say that I believe this approach – either formally as collaborative law or with sensible, pragmatic family lawyers advising their clients to look at this – must be the way forward. It is certainly the sensible way forward. It could be that many people, based on their viewing habits, think this is already the norm. Is this a great promotion opportunity for us?

Andrew Woolley
Family solicitor

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