Following last week’s news that the Competition and Markets Authority has launched an investigation into the provision of unregulated legal services with so-called “quickie” divorces being one of the focuses, Today’s Family Lawyer sought the views of three family lawyers on what this might mean. Here’s what they had to say.
‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is’
These are the words of Oana Preda, Family Solicitor at IMD Corporate, who said that it is human nature to want to overcome a daunting experience – such as divorce – as quickly as possible. The rise of quickie divorces is, she says, therefore unsurprising. However, this isn’t advisable, says Preda:
“Firms offering quickie divorces may fault on the quality or completeness of the service. For instance, the majority of people will not know that the divorce does not sever the spouses’ financial ties and, as such, will finalise their divorce oblivious to the irreparable consequences of doing so, without first dealing with the division of the matrimonial assets.”
John Ebeneezer, Solicitor in the Family Team at Ashfords LLP, offered a similar assessment:
“It would be easy to write these services off as ‘being too good to be true’, in promising to finalise your divorce more quickly and cheaply than anybody else, as well as in some cases promising to deal with a financial clean break in one fell swoop […] It’s understandable how the promise of a lower price and straightforward process could be tempting.”
There are, however, concerns regarding the quality of service provided and misleading claims on price and process, said Ebeneezer:
“Whilst the divorce process has been simplified, that doesn’t mean it’s always simple. There remain a number of pitfalls that, if not recognised or properly understood, can have long standing and wide-ranging consequences.
These online services appear to rely on the fact that matters will proceed smoothly and in a uniform manner. If that isn’t the case, it could mean that while the upfront cost is lower, the hidden costs of not having the requisite legal support in place could end up causing further damage, delay and confusion.”
The impact of the cost of living crisis
It has been mooted that the cost of living crisis is one key driver behind the rise in quickie divorces’ popularity. Oana Preda said:
“Anyone wanting to get divorced must pay at least a court fee of £593. With the cost-of-living rising, that is often enough to make people think of giving their marriage yet another go, which is not only a regretful situation, but also has the potential of placing vulnerable individuals in dangerous positions when their financial situation makes them unable to leave an abuser.
With children, finances and divorce being independent proceedings, legal costs can pile up, and people are increasingly reluctant to commit to a professional service. We find that with the cost of living crisis, people spend considerably more time reflecting on their options before embarking on a legal journey, whether in or outside of court. The reality is that their quality of life is highly impacted on and often, it is the family’s children who suffer the most.
Unfortunately, the cost-of-living crisis has an impact on most sectors, including the legal one. Numerous firms opt to offer extremely limited to no free legal advice. This places people in difficulty, where they are left with no alternative but to choose the cheaper alternatives, or attempt to solve their legal problems themselves. This often will result in delays, even higher costs to mend any mistakes, or, in worst cases, may cause irreversible errors with immense impact on their lives and future.
Such situations may be tackled by the legal sector through an increased availability for limited and general, yet free guidance for vulnerable individuals.”
Proper regulation is ‘crucial’
Sarah Higgins, Partner at Charles Russell Speechlys, suggests that it is important to differentiate between the divorce process itself and financial claims.
“The divorce process itself is relatively straightforward although it is important that consumers understand the implications of getting divorced. If firms undertake the divorce process on behalf of consumers, it is only right that they do so efficiently and effectively to avoid delay and additional stress. Those who are getting divorced are often distressed, and a desire to deal with the process quickly and cheaply can make them vulnerable.”
Sorting out finances can, however, be more complicated such is the nature of the English system, suggests Higgins:
“Consumers may not be properly advised with a quickie service. However, with the demise of legal aid, it is hard for people to be able to afford legal advice. Recent developments have meant too, that it is more difficult to obtain litigation loans.”
In any case, proper regulation is crucial, says the CRS partner:
“The increase in litigants in person has contributed to the delays in the court system, which affects everyone. There are pro bono services in certain parts of the country, but legal advice centres have suffered from a lack of funding. Unless funding for the family justice system is addressed properly, inevitably consumers will turn to quickie divorce services and it is crucial that they are properly regulated.”