Two family law barristers have set up what is believed to be the first service allowing separating couples to obtain advice from a single legal expert at any point in the process.
Samantha Woodham and Harry Gates, both based at 4 Paper Buildings, are launching The Divorce Surgery as an alternative business structure (ABS) regulated by the Bar Standards Board later this week.
It has a minority private shareholder, a non-lawyer investment manager, which is why it is set up as an ABS.
The Divorce Surgery’s advisory board includes Alex Verdan QC, a deputy High Court judge, and Charles Hale QC, both of them leading family law barristers. The service offers advice from barristers with a range of experience, including QCs.
Ms Woodham said solicitors were prevented by Solicitors Regulation Authority rules from advising both sides in a divorce, while mediators were able to provide legal information but not legal advice.
She said there was nothing to stop her and Mr Gates – who are both direct access barristers – from acting in a similar role to a single joint expert as long as they did not represent either side afterwards.
“Divorce is often the biggest surrender of assets anyone will make, so most people want to know what is likely to happen,” Ms Woodham said.
“My concern is that the options for people at the moment are trying to figure out what to do themselves in a legal advice vacuum, going to mediator who cannot give legal advice or going to their own solicitors – which makes the process adversarial from day one.
“Solicitors discourage clients from sharing advice, so the couple will not be communicating about future outcomes and it is very difficult for lawyers to predict the outcome when they have only heard one side of the story.
“Our adversarial system is forcing families into a process that can make things worse.
“Seeing us means they will be armed with the information they need at the earliest possible stage in a civilised, dignified way. They can then, if they want, go to their own solicitor or mediator, or do it themselves, from a stronger, more informed position.”
Ms Woodham said the idea behind The Divorce Surgery sprang from an experience she had five years ago, giving unofficial advice to friends.
“Some friends were having problems and one of them wanted to speak to me. I asked to talk to them together. I went round, sat on their sofa and talked them through the options together.
“I never mentioned it again. In the end, they went to marriage guidance and stayed together. I’m not being evangelical, I just think this kind of dignified service is not going to make anything worse.”
Couples using The Divorce Surgery attend brief introductory sessions with a barrister separately, to make sure the process is suitable for them and there are no hidden assets or abuse, and where they are advised on the financial disclosure they need to make.
The couple is then advised together by a barrister for two to four hours on a “bracket of outcomes” that the court is likely to consider fair and the advice is sent to them in writing.
Fees start from £3,000 plus VAT per couple, with 1% of profits donated to charities working in the field of access to justice.
Ms Woodham added: “At the end of a court process, when all the lawyers have gone away, a divorced couple has to start talking and communicating on a practical level.
“We are inviting couples to start as they mean to continue – taking responsibility for their own situation and actively engaging in moving forward.”