Supporting Employees through Divorce & Separation

Pic of Event

Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter MP addressing attendees at the Dialogue First reception

On 17th February professionals from human resources, occupational health, education and the voluntary sector gathered under the banner of Dialogue First at the House of Commons to discuss the impact of family breakdown on workplace wellbeing.

High on the agenda was new longitudinal data stating that at the onset of divorce/separation, between and a third and a half of impacted employees report mental distress levels high enough to be deemed at risk of depression.

With one exception panelists were drawn from entirely non-legal backgrounds. They included wellbeing leaders from Royal Mail, EAP provider Right Management Workplace Wellbeing, national children’s charity Place 2Be and the National Association of Head Teachers.

In the audience were representatives of major employers, EAP providers, the NHS and family wellbeing organisations. The aim of the evening was to demonstrate that a commitment to workplace wellbeing – and early stage intervention – could be leveraged to help support separating parents to communicate effectively when their children need it most.

There were some tough questions put the panel about employers being more proactive around personal matters but given the impact on mental health suffered by children and adults alike, there was consensus the issue should not be ignored.

This was especially true when chair of the panel – mental health campaigner and former Unilever HR executive Geoff McDonald – shared more longitudinal data stating that between 1996 and 2011 barely half of separating couples sought out legal advice and just one percent took themselves off to see a family mediator.

Worse still, the number of family mediations we know about across England and Wales has halved since April 2013, when policies put in place by the Ministry of Justice were supposed to see the number double. This is all the more depressing given that over three quarters of family mediations that got underway in 2013/14 ended in agreement.

The only family lawyer on the panel – Mike Devlin of Stephensons Solicitors – even stressed that supporting clients attending mediation could be lucrative for family lawyers. He added lawyers could even fix their fees for doing so and remove the anxiety of legal bills spiraling out of control.

This is precisely why we’re developing Lawyer-Supported Mediation. And it was a privilege to see the concept discussed outside of legal circles by professionals bringing an entirely new perspective to the challenge ahead.

*We are now putting together a community of major employers, EAPs, OH providers and trade unions, to offer Lawyer-Supported Mediation as part of a nationwide pilot that gets underway in April. For more information, please email: info@dialoguefirst.co.uk

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News Release: UK Barristers make LSM debut

EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01 WEDNESDAY, 24TH SEPTEMBER  

A team of family law barristers will today overturn centuries of legal tradition by being first to offer the public a fixed fee divorce service designed to keep their clients OUT OF COURT.

The team of barristers from Middlesbrough are dispensing with the wig and gown to help warring couples reach out of court settlements over child arrangements and family finances.

The decision to encroach on the traditional turf of high street solicitors is the unintended consequence of the government’s swingeing cuts to the family justice system. Following the withdrawal of legal aid for most family law matters, solicitors are instructing fewer and fewer barristers to represent publicly funded clients at court. As well as being responsible for the ballooning number of parents now representing themselves at court, it is threatening barristers with financial ruin.

In July, the Bar Council warned that legal aid family barristers were forcing many to question their futures following an online poll of its members. Over two-thirds of impacted family barristers reported a drop in fee income while ‘many respondents’ questioned the ‘viability’ of a career at the bar and were ‘actively considering’ whether they have a long-term future following the cuts.

This should not surprise. In the first year of cuts to legal aid, family law barristers across the UK saw their legal aid income targeted by government plummet from £38 million to £15 million. Impacted barristers are therefore staring to take advantage of recent changes to Direct Access regulation that effectively allows them to offer the same services as high street family solicitors.

The group of barristers from Middlesbrough have formed their own collective called Divorce Puzzle to market themselves directly to the public at reduced rates to solicitors.

Collette Price, a family barrister with over 15 years experience and co-founder of Divorce Puzzle, said: “It might seem bizarre for barristers to start marketing themselves as legal advisers to keep clients out of court but the truth is we can use this knowledge to save separating partners a huge amount of money by helping them reach agreement between themselves.

“We can do this at a lower cost than solicitors because our overheads are less. Barristers are also entirely comfortable with fixed fee options while solicitors are still working out ways to move away from hourly rate services,” added Price.

Divorce Puzzle will offer a new approach for resolving family disputes called Lawyer-Supported Mediation that is presently being piloted by a small network of solicitors in London and the north of England. The service fuses fixed fee legal advice with family mediation and aims to resolve family disputes by encouraging effective communication when the impulse among separating partners is to fight.

“Data from government shows eight of 10 people that begin mediation go on to reach agreement. By providing affordable fixed fee advice in parallel, we hope to encourage more separating couples to explore mediation,” said Price.

Marc Lopatin, trained mediator and founder of social enterprise Advantage Resolution, which developed and administers Lawyer-Supported Mediation, said: “If we’re going to put the interests of children first and keep more parents out of the courtroom, we urgently need to put effective communication at the core of family law services. We’re already working with a committed network of solicitors to deliver this and it’s extremely encouraging that barristers are starting to think along similar lines.”

Divorce Puzzle will be marketing Lawyer-Supported Mediation across North Yorkshire and parts of the northeast.

/ENDs

For more information:
Marc Lopatin (Director, Advantage Resolution): 033 0223 1188

Also see: http://www.DivorcePuzzle.co.uk

Background stories for editors:
http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/publicly-funded-bar-facing-post-laspo-exodus/5042215.article

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28329278

http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/fees-plummet-as-aid-cuts-starts-to-bite/5042508.article

Office of National Statistics (2012): 118,140 divorces in 2012. 42% of marriages ended in divorce. 40 and 44 years of age was the most common age at divorce. More: http://bit.ly/1n4UV4z

Be the family lawyer you want to be…

In spring 2014, we launch a one-year pilot to demonstrate that when family lawyers and family mediators work in tandem, the market for privately-funded family law services will grow.

The pilot will be made up of panels of participating law firms located in towns and cities across the UK. Each panel will consist of six law firms offering Lawyer-Supported Mediation on a cross-referral basis.

The aim: drive down the cost of full service dispute resolution so more private clients can afford it.

Lawyers joining the panel will already be mindful of a gap in the provision of family law services. Average salary private clients cannot readily afford a lawyer to either negotiate on their behalf or pursue Collaborative Law.

And we don’t believe the burgeoning number of “fixed fee packages” will reverse this trend. Does fixing a fee for a divorce petition, filling out Form E or drafting a consent order really meet client demand for a lawyer to help them resolve contested issues?

This is why the one-year pilot will combine the complementary expertise of lawyer and mediator. Clients seek out lawyers for advice and security. This is an essential component of Lawyer-Supported Mediation and why our service starts and ends with lawyer. By the same token, publicly available data shows that when clients are willing to begin mediation, there’s an excellent prospect for reaching agreement.

Which is why lawyers joining the pilot will want to test new ways of incubating and encouraging clients explore mediation. This is the polar opposite of the Ministry of Justice’s forthcoming requirement that an Applicant meet a mediator en route to court.

If you have an appetite for innovation, we want to hear from you. Above all, we want to attract family lawyers that see profit in commercialising informed dialogue so full service dispute resolution is finally within reach of average income private clients.

Legal lifeline for divorcing couples following end of legal aid

From 1st April 2013, up to 200,000 people filing for divorce face the prospect of no access to legal advice following the withdrawal of legal aid from lawyers who previously acted for separating couples.

Currently in the UK, privately funded disputes over children and financial arrangements can push the cost of divorce to over £10,000 per couple in legal fees.

In response, a network of top London family lawyers is joining forces with family mediators to provide an affordable alternative called lawyer-supported mediation. For the first time, each member of a warring couple will be offered a matching fixed fee covering all the legal advice they need to resolve their differences.

Marc Lopatin, a trained family mediator and founder of lawyersupportedmediation.com, said: “From today, we face a situation where divorcing partners eligible for legal aid effectively join the ranks of those earning an average salary. Neither group can afford to pay a lawyer to negotiate their divorce.

“We dramatically reduce the cost of accessing legal experts by fusing their advice with family mediation, where separating couples can resolve their differences. This is particularly important where children are involved. The overall cost of lawyer-supported mediation is between 45% and 90% less than hiring the participating lawyers on even reduced hourly rates. ”

John O’Callaghan, partner of central London law firm Ronald Fletcher Baker, one of the scheme’s participants, said: “We recognise that the withdrawal of legal aid from family lawyers will see thousands of people unable to access the expertise they need. That’s why forward thinking law firms are now offering lawyer-supported mediation to provide legal advice at prices people can afford. We want separating couples on all incomes to know there is now an alternative to an expensive and acrimonious divorce.”

Example: Couple divorcing and in disagreement over finances and child arrangements:

Couple A: Both partners eligible for legal aid from today
Total private contribution made by the couple using lawyer-supported mediation: £720 (incl. VAT). This covers all pre-mediation legal advice and the completion of divorce paperwork. Legal aid pays for all other remaining professional fees (i.e. the cost of mediation, legal advice once mediation underway, and the Consent Order).

Total cost to Couple A of using the same two family lawyers on reduced hourly rates to resolve their disagreement estimated at £7200 incl. Vat [3]. Lawyer-supported mediation 90% cheaper in terms of what Couple A is being asked to contribute privately alongside legal aid funding.

Couple B: Both partners just miss out on legal aid from today
Split equally, the total cost to Couple B of using lawyer-supported mediation is £4000 incl. VAT. Covers all legal advice & paperwork and the cost of mediation. Cost to Couple B of using the same two family lawyers on reduced hourly rates to resolve their disagreement estimated at £7200 incl. VAT. Lawyer-supported mediation 45% cheaper.

Lawyer-supported mediation is available across London and will be rolled out across the country.

Introducing lawyer-supported mediation

Hi there and welcome. My name is Marc Lopatin and not so long ago I trained as a family mediator. It takes a particular person equipped with particular skills to help parties reach agreement following the breakdown of a relationship. I learned – if I’m honest – that I probably don’t have what it takes.

But as a communications adviser with voluntary sector experience, I realised family mediation has an important story to tell. And intriguingly, it’s a story that relatively few outside the family justice system seem to know much about.

This is not surprising given mediation – of all kinds – is without a high street presence. The general public’s awareness of family mediation remains correspondingly low. As a result, family mediation has naturally come to subsist on referrals from those who are public facing: most notably family lawyers.

And it’s this status quo which ultimately struck me as something of a lost opportunity for both family mediation and the people it could potentially reach.

But so what? Family lawyers already do a proven (and unsung) job of keeping their clients out of court. Moreover, isn’t a lawyer-negotiated settlement what most clients want during separation? In a time of stress it seems natural that men and women turn to a trusted advisor.

Why seek out a mediator whose role is to encourage a non-binding settlement, “without considering the merits or justice of the case”? And I’m not sure requiring one party to attend a mediation information and assessment meeting – as a precursor to court action – will directly do much to change this.

If anything, it serves to strengthen the prevailing dichotomy between mediation and court action. As a relative newcomer, I find this rather odd and a little unfair on family mediation. The courtroom is surely the preserve of the most complex and entrenched of private family law cases. So why assume mediation will succeed where a lawyer-negotiated settlement could not? Should it not be the other way around?

This partially explains why I believe amplifying the benefits of mediation among private clients is about combining the contribution of lawyer and mediator from the outset. It is here that I hope to demonstrate untapped benefit.

Over the past six months, I’ve pursued this vision with a small number of enterprising law firms and mediators to arrive at what we think is a simple and cost-effective approach. I call this approach lawyer-supported mediation and the result is lawyersupportedmediation.com.

For the client, access to a senior lawyer at a fixed fee raises trust levels in mediation and represents a cost saving – even when mediation fees are added. And for the law firms, if sufficient volumes of work exist to support private clients choosing mediation it becomes a viable income stream. Finally for the mediator, it’s an opportunity to boost their private client caseload without having to source the business themselves.

Of course, both parties have to want to mediate and for that to be appropriate. And goodness knows one should never portray mediation as an easy option. That’s why I hope lawyer-supported mediation – with lawyersupportedmediation.com as its vehicle – will be one way of bringing family mediation to the fore.

Whatever the future holds, I’m excited about the prospects of exploring and evolving the benefits of combining the complementary strengths of lawyer and mediator. It would be great to hear from those of you with a similar vision.