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Moving on and managing your legal costs

03rd November 2015

Two years on from a major reduction in the provision of legal aid for family law cases, solicitor Gemma Holmes explains how to manage your legal costs so you can still move on with your life

There is no doubt that the reduction of legal aid in most cases of divorce, separation, contact and residence disputes and other aspects of family law has had an enormous impact following the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Clients increasingly have no option but to fund their cases privately.  Legal aid is still available, but the merits and means tests mean that only a small minority of client’s are now eligible.  A solicitor will be able to advise you quickly as to whether or not you might be entitled to legal aid. 

These dramatic changes mean the majority of couples for whom parting is the only option, including those on low incomes, have to pay themselves.

That is proving to be a frightening prospect for many, especially when some people have the mistaken view that solicitors are making excessive profits from their problems. Misinformation like that may even put people off from seeking an initial consultation with a solicitor.

In an ideal world every family would be a happy one and separation would never take place. Of course, in reality that is often not the case and it's a great shame  if people feel they have no alternative but to stay in an unhappy or unpleasant relationship because they believe they can't afford the way out.

If your relationship has broken down to the point where you are considering permanent separation or divorce, then you need to know it is achievable to give you the peace of mind of knowing you have a future and you can move forward with your life.  People I meet have often made assumptions about how the law will or will not favour their situation, particularly in relation to their finances or contact with their children.  So many times, these assumptions are wrong, and they are entitled to much more.

A lot of people seeking divorce are still young and have their whole lives ahead of them.  Many have children and are desperately trying to make the relationship work for their children.  This is admirable but in some cases it's better for everyone involved to have two happy homes rather than one unhappy situation in which you feel trapped.

People should not be put off from seeking legal advice by perceptions of cost since the reduction in legal aid. Similarly, if you have significant assets as a couple, for example, more than one property, a business, shares, pensions, cash and other assets, then you should always seek good legal advice from the outset of your separation.

I always encourage clients to call for a chat or to come in for a free 30-minute consultation so I can advise on next steps, especially for people for whom divorce may carry considerable financial risks.

A lot of law firms offer fixed fee rates for divorce, for example at BHP Law it is £500 +VAT if the client is the person applying for the divorce and there are no complicating factors, so it pays to reach agreement early with your spouse to keep costs low. In any event, we provide a written estimate from the outset.

We ask for a retainer up front and we also offer staged payments by standing order to spread the cost.  If it works for you to pay little and often then we are happy to accommodate this.  The best option is to call for a chat and discuss what else we can offer.   In other words, we help clients to manage the costs to suit their circumstances.

Keeping a case out of court is another way of reducing costs and, importantly, retaining some control over the outcome of your case. 

Another misconception of lawyers is that they aim to complicate cases to make more money. This may be true of a very small minority, but the mission of the majority is to reach agreement between parties.   Mediation, where all parties come together to discuss matters and hopefully find some common ground or at least areas of compromise, often  pays off in the long run. No one wants a hostile situation. It's far better to reach some degree of compromise and walk away with your dignity, in control and having had influence over final decisions than to end up in court where it's the judge who decides and your costs increase.  If the case suits it, then we can offer spacious rooms for meetings between you, your ex partner and both of your legal representatives to try and come to some agreement.

If you're the partner of a high earner but have no specific income of your own, other applications can be made which will assist you with your legal costs and outgoings, for example, spousal maintenance, maintenance pending suit, legal services orders and an application for your spouse to pay the costs.  You might also be entitled to a fee remission from the court meaning that you might pay a reduced court fee or even nothing.  These matters sound complicated but with a helping hand from an experienced matrimonial solicitor, they could be a reality.

Prospective clients may be fearful of sharing private family matters with a lawyer.  My approach is friendly and forward-thinking.  It's important to find a solicitor you feel comfortable with, which is why I recommend having a chat on the phone or sitting down for an initial consultation.   It will pay off in the end.

 

Gemma can be contacted on 0191 384 0840.

 

Gemma Holmes Associate