I was looking this week at what I think is a pretty good new, online service for divorcing couples wanting to work to reach agreement on the value of their assets before then asking a barrister to give an opinion on whether it is likely to be accepted by the court.
However, what spoiled the experience was a careless scaremongering line that suggested that a divorce through a high street law firm “could easily reach £40,000”. On what planet? What are this “typical” high street firms playing at? As I mentioned last week, a more realistic figure including solicitor fees, court fees etc is around £4,000. Scaremongering at its worst – or simply an indication that maybe the site is aimed at very high earners?
That aside, www.intelligentdivorce.co.uk is a good idea I think. The site helps a divorcing user gather the information a barrister needs to provide an informed legal opinion as to the likely outcome at court, tailored to the individual circumstances of the customer. It is relatively straightforward to use and in the current climate of individuals wanting to do more themselves to keep costs under control, it could be another valuable tool.
Anything which helps reduce the costs, stress and upset of a divorce is welcome. This website could certainly, it seems, help someone who thinks they have to go to court avoid it by carrying out some work themselves. However, and this is another one of my regular beefs it does appear to make the assumption that most divorce cases have to go to court when, in our experience, about 97% don’t – and this is likely to increase more with a collaborative approach, mediation and effective negotiation by experienced solicitors being exploited more widely – so it might be overstating the number of cases where it could be useful, but that’s just marketing at play.
There is definitely a place for this type of site. Anything that dispenses information about the process and helps people find their way through what is alien territory is a good thing. Giving more responsibility to the clients themselves and simplifying the gathering of disclosure is a fantastic way of them being in control of costs. However, there is no substitute in my view for that personal interaction. Having the direct input of an experienced family lawyer can help an individual choose the route that is best for them out of the options available. For instance, giving the impression that every case needs the input of a barrister is wrong. It can be useful but for many people it is unnecessary. In many cases, it would be duplicating costs if you were to use a barrister at every hearing.
Another danger with do it yourself sites is that they give the impression that if you follow the advice you will reach a settlement. This does not fit with human nature. Getting an opinion from a barrister does not constitute a final agreement. It is merely an informed steer to what might be acceptable. An experienced family lawyer can nearly always provide such a steer.
Self-help legal sites are part of the future of the sector. To what degree and exactly what part they will play is up for debate. It is an interesting one though. Think I’ll ask some colleagues and get back to you with their views next time.