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You may be splitting up, but things don’t have to fall apart

Sunday March 13, 2005
The Observer

There is never going to be such a thing as ‘a good divorce’ but Suzanne, a 39-year old from East Anglia, reckons hers was ‘probably as good as it gets’. Her decree nisi arrived two weeks ago and her main feelings were of relief and sadness in equal measures.

‘My eight-year-old daughter asked me if we could watch our wedding video – she was 18 months old when we were married,’ she says. ‘I said “No” and tried to explain that it would make me a bit sad because on the day we got married I thought that we would never split up. That really upset me, but I know it’s time to move on.’

Suzanne is a pioneer of sorts. She is one of the very first of a new generation of UK divorcees who have opted for a brand new non-adversarial alternative to the divorce courts. The approach has been imported from the US and goes under the unappealing title of ‘collaborative law’. So far there are about only 100 family lawyers who have been trained in this radically new approach by Resolution (formerly the Solicitors Family Law Association).

‘This is a new concept within family law,’ claims Roger Bamber, a Resolution member and a family law specialist at law firm Mills & Reeve. ‘It’s different from the conventional approach because you specifically exclude litigation and all that that implies. The courts polarise attitudes quickly and force couples to accentuate their differences and it is the same for lawyers – if you are preparing for court you have to concentrate on where the differences lie.’

Under the new model, couples and their lawyers work together in round-table meetings to negotiate agreements on financial and other issues without the involvement of the courts. Crucially, you agree from the outset that you will not drag each other through the courts unless negotiations break down – and then you will have to instruct new lawyers.

One lawyer calls this the ‘Jesus bolt’ – referring to the piece of metal connecting helicopter rotors to the engine. If you happen to be in one when the bolt comes out, you’ll only have time to say ‘Jesus’ before you plummet to certain death. The terrifying prospect of the divorce courts should prompt a similar response. Agreements are made with the full support of both you and your partner and, as a consequence, you are far more likely to stick to them.

This month divorce lawyers will be encouraged to curb their more predatory tendencies when Pauline Tesler, the American attorney who is one of the architects of collaborative law, flies in to the UK to train another batch of 250 lawyers. Her approach with her own clients is refreshingly direct. ‘If you would rather give up the right to dance at your daughter’s wedding for another £ 20,000 on the settlement, there are lawyers down the street who would love to help you, and you’ll send their child to university – not yours,’ she tells them.