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Where are we now?
With cuts to Legal Aid and the court system, the face of family law is changing day by day and family lawyers at all levels need to rise to the challenge of adapting. Careful consideration needs to go into looking at new options for clients and the forward looking family lawyer must investigate fresh ways to provide the correct support for those facing relationship breakdown.
During the campaigning family organisation Resolution’s DR (Dispute Resolution) Week last November Mills & Reeve ran a series of inter-disciplinary seminars and used that opportunity to ask 100 family justice professionals their views on how proficient family lawyers currently are at working collaboratively with other professions. 80% felt that very few actively did so. Reasons for this included some lawyers lacking a full understanding about how other professions can contribute to the process or fears of escalating costs. However, with 91% of our interviewees believing that when lawyers work closely with other professionals it makes it less stressful for the individuals involved, there is huge scope for practice to change.
Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution method where, instead of heading to court, parties meet with a neutral third-party, the mediator, in an effort to settle their case, whether about the children, their finances or, often, both. In 2013 legal aid was scrapped for most legal advice in family cases, but remains available for mediation for those financially eligible. Awareness of mediation is increasing and for many people, although by no means all, it can be a really effective way to deal with the issues that need to be resolved. It was therefore not surprising perhaps that 49% of those surveyed felt that mediators will eventually replace lawyers as the first point of contact.
Whether or not a couple decides to use mediation, collaborative law or solicitor negotiation, a family case could require input from one or more other professionals such as accountants, independent financial advisors (IFAs) , actuaries and therapists/counsellors. 62% of those interviewed believed that collaborative working speeds up the process and 83% believe it can reduce the likelihood of expensive litigation. At present, solicitors often work closely with accountants and IFAs but it is becoming increasingly common for a team to expand and include therapists and counsellors also. Collaborative working means a client can benefit from a holistic service and thus feel supported at what might well be the most distressing period of their lives.
Family lawyers cannot stand alone and claim to know it all. Now, more than ever, they need to be creative in their approach and be proactive in involving the other professionals best placed to help them . With 70% of our interviewees believing that clients are more satisfied at the end of a divorce if they have been through collaborative law or mediation, it’s clear that addressing not only the legal aspects of a client’s case, but also their financial and emotional needs, will help to minimise the pain of family breakdown and give families the best chance of achieving lasting outcomes.