Legal Ombudsman speaks out on the cost of divorce

Interesting article from Adam Sampson

In my role as legal ombudsman, lawyers are always stressing to me that theirs is a vocation, rooted in a deep sense of ethics and commitment to the interests of their clients. But they don't mention that it is also a business: lawyers – now perhaps more than ever – need to have at least one eye on their profit levels. Without a good business head, few lawyers will survive today's economic challenges.
Nowhere is this tension between ethics and business as pronounced as it is with divorce. For a lawyer, a new divorce case is just another client, another day at the office; for the client – vulnerable, distressed and angry – this may be the worst thing that they have ever experienced. As my caseload shows, this collision does not always produce a happy result.
At best – and by definition, ombudsmen only see the worst cases – family lawyers are among the most supportive and client-sensitive lawyers there are. But in such cases – as our recent report into the issue shows – client emotion, unchecked by the restraining hand of a good lawyer, can create havoc. When two unreasoning spouses create a "divorce of attrition", the only winners are usually the bank accounts of lawyers.
Divorce is a complicated and often stressful business. There is usually a house to deal with, possessions to divide, children and pets to decide upon. And then there's the financial side of things: savings and income to calculate. But when an angry spouse sets out to punish their former lover, using the court as a kind of legislative bludgeon, it can result in both partners being hit with high legal fees, possible debt and a drawn-out, acrimonious battle. Some of the case studies featured in our report tell us as much.
This is where a good lawyer comes in. Sadly, all too often what we have found is that some lawyers fail to put the customer's needs above their desire to maximise profit. They allow customers to continue with an inadvisable course of action, failing to dissuade them from an emotionally driven campaign against their former partner – or just being realistic about how much it could cost. Unsurprisingly, we found that around one quarter of the legal complaints in family law cases were down to poor information about costs.
The relationship counselling charity Relate released some interesting research this week, about the effects of the breakdown of relationships on men. It found that men were actually at greater risk of suicide, while also being less likely to enjoy the support of a network of friends. So while figures from the Office for National Statistics show higher median gross earnings for men than women – confirming my suspicion that men have greater financial means to fight divorce cases – they are probably worse equipped emotionally.
This caught my attention largely because we had omitted an interesting statistic from our report. Generally, there is almost an exact equal split between men and women complaining to us. But in divorce cases, women are nearly twice as likely to complain as men. We didn't put this into the report, largely because we don't have any evidence about why that is.
But it does pose a few questions. Do some women smell blood on their emotionally vulnerable male counterparts and – subsequently, but inadvisably – strive for unrealistic settlements? Or do they simply come out fighting to redress the financial imbalance created by their former spouse's higher earnings, which, ironically, ends up incurring costs beyond their means? Do women get a worse time from divorce lawyers than men?
Some complainants are certainly the architects of their own problems. In one of our case studies, the complainant pursued 70% of her and her ex-husband's joint assets, despite being advised she could reasonably expect only 50%. When she didn't get her way, she complained to us, but we found no poor service. In this case, it seems she repeatedly ignored her lawyer's advice.
In another case a woman complained that her law firm had failed to make more of her husband's abusive past – despite failing to tell them she had been writing him affectionate letters throughout the case. She ultimately lost £30,000 pursuing a higher settlement, and we rejected the complaint since the law firm had acted perfectly reasonably.
Of course, men can be just as prone to playing the long game and of being stubborn to their own detriment. And it can be that women are following the emotional trajectory of their ex-partners and are seeking to keep as much stability and order as possible during an upsetting time.
The complexity of divorce cases means there are many things to factor into the equation. One thing is certain though: the less emotional people are during a divorce, the more likely they are to keep their costs down.
Because 27% of divorce-related legal complaints are about cost, and with sweeping changes to the funding of divorce cases (withdrawal of legal aid for instance), there is a greater onus on lawyers to help clients manage budgets. Providing reality checks and being clear and transparent about costs from the off would be a great starting point.

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