One Couple One Lawyer has received a lot of press, a lot of awards and a lot of interest.
But what is it really like being a divorcing couple who share a lawyer? How does it work? How does it feel?
This is the story of one couple, Anna and David, who did it (names and key facts have been changed to preserve anonymity).
Meet David and Anna
Anna and David met 15 years ago, when they were both in their 20s. They started living together about two years later and were married 3 years after that (so about 10 years ago). They are both now in their mid 40s.
They have 3 children, aged 8, 6 and 3. The two eldest are at private school, and their youngest has just started nursery.
When they started their relationship, both were working in London- Anna in PR and David in a relatively junior role at a finance firm. After marrying they moved to the suburbs and after the birth of their first child Anna resigned from her PR role.
David’s career naturally progressed over the last decade such that he is now in quite a senior position. Anna took a long career break to care for the children and has recently returned to work part-time in an administrative role at a school.
Both are highly committed parents, although work commitments and the way they chose to live their married life has meant that Anna took on the majority of childcare.
Their financial position is as follows:
- The family home in London, with a large mortgage. Anna’s parents contributed £300,000 towards the initial purchase as a drawdown against her future inheritance;
- David retained a flat in London which he purchased prior to the marriage and owns jointly with his brother. It is tenanted and has a sizeable mortgage;
- David has one significant private pension arrangement, some of which was built up prior to the relationship;
- David has some cash savings and some relatively liquid investments;
- Anna has no significant savings and no private pension;
- Anna earns a very modest salary from her part-time role at the school;
- David’s earnings are made up of base salary and deferred compensation (which makes up the vast majority of his income and is a combination of cash and share option elements, paid out over three years)
David contacts The Divorce Surgery first, having found out about us from a friend. He is asked to complete the online questionnaire, as is Anna when she gets in touch. They both then book in separate Introductory Sessions with Samantha Woodham, co-founder of The Divorce Surgery and family law barrister.
On the online questionnaires they each submit, they both indicate that things are quite difficult between them at the moment. They want to be fair, but they don’t know what fair will mean in their situation. They are both highly anxious to maintain as harmonious a relationship as possible for the children. They are still living together. They have agreed, in broad terms, what the arrangements for the children should be once they are living apart.
Anna is quite emotional during the Introductory Session. From her perspective she has been withdrawing from the relationship for many years. She sees the birth of their third child as an attempt to heal a relationship which was already beyond repair. David had a brief affair two years ago. He thinks that is the reason for the divorce. He feels very guilty. She too feels guilty because she had really given up on the marriage before the affair, but she hasn’t told this to David. Overwhelmingly she feels sad, and worried for the children, but there is also a small part of her that feels relieved, and hopeful, and free. She feels guilty about that too.
Samantha explores with Anna what made her interested in The Divorce Surgery. Anna said her parents had had an awful divorce which dragged on for years, and the effects continue. It was a nightmare managing her parents at her own wedding. She does not want that for her children. She does not think David is a bad person.
What is The Divorce Surgery?
Samantha explains what The Divorce Surgery is: it is an opportunity for Anna and David, together, to instruct one barrister who can advise them both about what a court would view as fair in their circumstances. Anna confirms that there are no domestic violence issues, and that she and David understand their finances and trust each other to be honest with financial disclosure. There are no other red flags and so Samantha confirms that it sounds as if they would both be suitable, if they agree. Samantha explains that they will each have to give financial disclosure, and takes Anna though what that means. One Couple One Lawyer is a streamlined process, and so usually takes around 6-8 weeks, with a fixed fee cost.
Anna says that she feels David might be more confident than she is at the Advice Session. She is anxious about having to ‘make her case’ to the barrister. Samantha explains that, in fact, the Advice Session with the barrister they choose will be very much led by the barrister. Couples are encouraged, alongside their financial disclosure, to provide the barrister with privileged (confidential) details of proposals they would like to make or outcomes they think are fair. The barrister will take all of this into account, but ultimately the Advice Session is for the couple to hear the barrister’s opinion about what a Judge would consider to be fair.
Many couples ask questions, and this is encouraged, but this is to ensure they understand what the barrister is saying and why. The Advice Session is not a negotiation, nor a mediation. Couples are not expected to reach any agreements in the room. Rather, they are given a 15-20 page detailed written advice shortly after the meeting so they can reflect on the advice they have received and decide what they want to do.
The advice session
Anna asked what would happen once they receive the written advice. Samantha explained that the advice is privileged, and that neither she nor David will be bound by it. Most couples do settle within the parameters of the advice, and many are relieved to have an answer. But how much time they take to reach agreement is entirely up to them.
Some go home and after a few days sit down together and reach agreement, then get back in touch with The Divorce Surgery to draft an agreed consent order. (It is crucial to know that until any agreement reached has been approved by a Judge and converted into a sealed court order it is not final and a couples’ claims against each other remain alive. A Judge will only approve an agreement he/she considers to be fair: it is not a rubber stamp exercise. So the sooner a couple know what a Judge would consider to be fair, the better.)
Some couples start in mediation, but want legal advice, and use the written advice they receive from The Divorce Surgery to finalise their negotiations in further mediation. Some clients get second opinions from solicitors. One Couple One Lawyer is a service which can complement many other family law services, or be used on its own. The key is that it keeps channels of communication open between the couple, who receive the same advice at the same time, giving them the information they need to reach a fair deal, without unnecessary delay and for fixed cost.
Shortly after Anna’s meeting finishes, David arrives for his Introductory Session. Anna in fact waits for him so she can touch base briefly. In his meeting with Samantha, David is keen to engage in the detail of the process and the financial disclosure. He passes all the screening questions without raising any concerns.
What is the human cost of lengthy litigation?
When asked why he is exploring The Divorce Surgery as an option, he says he had a work colleague who had had a bitter, protracted divorce which had cost him a fortune and David is determined to avoid that. He could see the children’s school fee fund being at risk if they enter into lengthy litigation. Samantha asks if he has any other motivators for using a joint service.
David says that he wants to do right by Anna and the children but also be fair on himself. He feels the breakdown of the marriage has been his fault (he does not elaborate as to why). He still wants to stay married to Anna. There is a part of him that hopes she may still change her mind. He accepts that is unlikely. Samantha explores whether he has accessed any form of support (a conversation she also had with Anna). He says they had seen a marriage counsellor but it hadn’t worked. Samantha asks if he might like to consider some support for himself, and set out various options. He says he will think about it.
David is keen to explore in detail with Samantha what he considers to be the most sensible outcome in terms of the finances. Samantha explains that she cannot give legal advice at the Introductory Session, the only legal advice which is given is to the couple together at the Advice Session, in keeping with the joint, impartial nature of the service. However, Samantha encourages David to set out the detail of his proposals so these can be provided to the advising barrister on a privileged, confidential basis.
After the Introductory Sessions
Claire, the relationship manager at The Divorce Surgery, sends Anna and David a detailed email setting out a summary of what Samantha has told them in terms of the process and what financial disclosure is required given their circumstances. Having liaised with Samantha, she suggests the names of several barristers who have the requisite level of experience, dates when they are available and confirms the fixed fee for the service.
David and Anna confirm they would like to proceed, and indicate their barrister of choice and the dates which suit them best for the Advice Session.
Over the next three weeks, they liaise with each other and Claire about the financial disclosure, sending in the documents requested and confirming that they accept each other’s disclosure. In more complex cases couples can choose to have an additional step, called a Disclosure Session, which is a meeting with the advising barrister a couple of weeks before the Advice Session, so everyone can go through the financial disclosure together, and the barrister can confirm whether it is complete or whether further information or valuations are required. This is not needed in David and Anna’s case.
The Advice Session
About a month after David and Anna’s Introductory Sessions, the attend the Advice Session. The content of the meeting is privileged (confidential), and the advising barrister sets out to Anna and David the law and case law which would apply, how a Judge would approach the division of their financial resources, and what outcomes would be considered to be legally fair in the circumstances. The advice is very detailed and specific, and is followed up in writing two days later. In David and Anna’s case, the meeting lasts for three hours.
After the Advice
About two weeks after the Advice Session, David emails, copying in Anna, with two specific points he would like clarified following the advice. Claire liaises with the advising barrister and comes back with a detailed response.
David and Anna confirm the response is clear and they are now proceeding with discussions between themselves as to reaching a final settlement. The advice, in fact, turns out to be slightly closer to the outcome Anna had suggested than that proposed by David. David sends the following email at the end of the process:
To the extent that it is possible to say such a thing, I think that Anna and I enjoyed the session and meeting our barrister. He was balanced, even-handed and clear.David – The Divorce Surgery Client
Reaching a final settlement with one couple one lawyer
About 6 weeks after the Advice Session, Anna and David contact The Divorce Surgery confirming they have reached agreement and would like the barrister who advised them to draw up a consent order, again on a fixed fee basis. In the course of the last month Anna has had a meeting with a family solicitor to talk through the advice. David did not take that step, but liaised with Anna so that they could agree the content of their divorce petition. They are both very pleased to have reached the end of the process of agreeing the division of their finances and are content with the agreement they have reached.
Once Anna and David receive their Decree Nisi, they lodge the court order and statement of means with the court office. They then receive a sealed copy of their consent order a few weeks later. Anna applies for Decree Absolute, and the process is complete.
From first enquiry to Advice Session takes Anna and David 6 weeks. This is the period of time we most care about at The Divorce Surgery, because once couples are fully informed as to what a Court would do in their circumstances, from an expert who is impartial and is analysing the case as a Judge would, the sooner they can start negotiating within parameters that a Judge would view as fair and therefore would be likely to approve. Provided they are communicating constructively, they should proceed at a pace which works for them.