Divorce can be among the most painful and bruising episodes life can throw at you. And if you happen to be financing the entire process on an average salary, you’ll have the added anxiety of keeping legal fees within your means to pay.
I refer here to the unknown swathe of separating partners who just miss out on publicly funded legal advice and representation. For those impacted it’s a moot point: the price of accessing legal advice can be prohibitive given a senior high street London solicitor will charge between £190 and £250 per hour (plus Vat) to negotiate a divorce settlement.
At the upper end of these rates, lawyer estimates in our possession suggest someone initiating divorce proceedings could end up paying between £5230 and £7630 (incl. Vat and court fees) for an experienced solicitor to keep their divorce from court where both child arrangements and finances require settlement.
For someone earning the full-time average London salary of £34,467 (2011) this equates to spending a whopping 20% to 28% of take home annual pay on lawyers’ fees alone.
So who are these people? Well, they’re nurses, teachers, council workers, private sector employees and the self-employed, all earning just above or below London’s full-time average salary.
This instinctively tells us there’s an entire of market of people across the country already being confronted by a little known justice gap. A quick statistical review by the Office Of National Statistics (ONS) confirms this.
In London alone, where half of all resident full-time employees in 2011 earned too much to be considered for legal aid, almost one fifth (18%) of this group miss out by virtue of earning up to £343 too much each month. This is the narrowest of margins.
Add in the unknown number of Londoners who earn less than the £2657 monthly income cap but fall foul of recently tightened secondary eligibility criteria and you have – by any measure – a huge number of people for whom accessing affordable legal expertise is already an issue. My back of the envelope – non-ONS sanctioned – calculations suggest over a quarter of million workers in London fit into this category.
When sitting opposite such clients a senior family solicitor may reduce their fee or, if backed by a less experienced team, offer up a more recently qualified colleague or a supervised paralegal.
But at a time of anxiety and stress, don’t separating couples earning average salaries also deserve access to high quality dispute resolution services? While the rich can fund a legal arms race, those eligible for legal aid have at least benefited from access to community legal services.
Until now that is. The government’s plans to withdraw a major chunk of public funding for private family law matters from April 2013 changes everything. And it means every legal aid family lawyer in the country should be reaching for their entrepreneur’s helmet.
This is because a great many of those eligible for public funding after 2013 will be denied access to upfront legal advice. The government’s response: take yourself off to family mediation and come back to the lawyer after session 1 for some help.
Not surprisingly, campaigners warn of an army of self-litigants clogging up the family courts. The government counters by saying family mediation can take up the slack and keep warring couples from the courts. Either way, the high street family lawyer – the “go to adviser” for hundreds of thousands of people each year, is seemingly being cut from the piece.
But is this what separating couples actually want? At a time of stress and uncertainty, people want legal advice about their circumstances from a professional they can trust. And here lies an opportunity for forward thinking family lawyers to offer clients a high quality resolution service they can afford without taking on debt.
It’s called lawyer-supported mediation and to maximise the prospects of reaching an agreement both parties are prepared to abide by, it encourages informed dialogue wherever appropriate by providing legal advice throughout.
The result is a more responsive and client-led approach that allows senior lawyers to fix their fees and bring down the overall cost of each case. It also promotes an unprecedented degree of transparency and equality of representation, allowing separating couples – where children are involved – to focus on making the transition from ex-partner to co-parent.
For some legal aid family lawyers this will always be the stuff of risk and reluctance. The prospect of offering fixed legal fees and sharing clients de facto with mediators may never wash. For others, it’ll stir a commercial reflex to attract higher volume but lower margin casework. One thing is certain: would-be private clients on an average salary would appreciate the choice.