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Breaking up is Hard to do – Are Divorce Clients an Easy Target?

Breaking up is Hard to do – Are Divorce Clients an Easy Target?

The Legal Ombudsman for England and Wales reported earlier this month that complaints relating to divorce and family law are almost double that of other areas. As someone taking relatively early steps in their legal career, it was staggering to read that so many lawyers are failing to manage client expectations – either negligently or otherwise.

Individuals looking for divorce and family advice are among the most vulnerable who approach solicitors. In contrast to business clients there is the added burden of emotional stress from a soured relationship. Feelings of failure and regret can cloud judgements as to what is the most practical path to take. The solicitor’s role should be to guide with an honest, neutral perspective, independent from these pressures.

As well as being emotionally sensitive, divorce clients make an easy target. There is usually a guaranteed sum of assets available, with both parties desperate to maximise their share. By raising the client’s hopes it is possible for lawyers to prolong the fight, raise the costs and take more of the spoils for their firms. Solicitors must be under an obligation to balance the chances of success against the likely financial outcome including its firm’s fees. Of course a client may be aware of the risk and still want to pursue the action, but at a point when further instructions could jeopardise the client’s final income, the solicitor has a duty to say.

… divorce clients make an easy target.

In an economic climate that is heaping further pressure on the majority of practices, at many firms the temptation to maximise revenues when the opportunity arises appears too significant to resist. It is concerning to hear that one firm charged a client up to £30,000 more than agreed. Arguably if this conduct is commonplace, it is the kind of practice that does not deserve to survive.

It is difficult to reconcile how professionals who trained so thoroughly in the discipline of justice could allow less-affluent clients to incur these sorts of costs…

I am already in the habit of recording time spent on tasks, but when I reflect on the hypothetical figures that I would be charging, it makes the report’s findings even more astonishing. It is difficult to reconcile how professionals who trained so thoroughly in the discipline of justice could allow less-affluent clients to incur the sort of costs mentioned in the report, especially in the face of such turmoil. If anything, the level of fees being charged should motivate lawyers to work more efficiently for clients, knowing the financial sacrifices they are making for every minute of their time.

The area of family law is complex, with extraordinary factors often leading to courses of action that would defy logic in any other area. This explains a number of the report’s findings, but it is clear that in many examples lawyers are failing to provide clients with a suitable level of transparency. The lessons are that lawyers must demonstrate reasonableness and manage expectations, but also that clients need to resist their emotions to view matters more objectively. This will ensure that they benefit most from the services they pay for.

The report ‘The price of separation: Divorce related legal complaints and their causes’ is available to read in full: here.

Ian Allchin is a GDL student at the College of Law and will be starting the LPC in September 2013. He is retraining in law after working for ten years in music and events at companies including BBC Studios and Ibiza Rocks. In his spare time he runs an artist management company called Iconic Management and he also volunteers at the RCJ Citizens Advice Bureau in central London.

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