Law: Our Learned Friend: The Jaggers' edge

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The Independent Culture
DIVORCE IS rarely out of the headlines. High-profile cases, such as the Jaggers', are big news. The amounts of money talked about fascinate everyone. Most divorces are not like that, of course - over 150,000 couples start the process of getting divorced each year, and for most that means sorting out the family home and where the children are to live, not dividing up big bank balances.

So what about ordinary people who are facing the prospect of getting a divorce? What is happening to make their lives easier? Solicitors and successive governments have been aiming to make the process of divorce less painful. Divorce, though never pleasant, shouldn't be full of conflict.

There is common agreement that the emphasis in divorce should be conciliation, discussion and joint decision - especially if children are involved. There are no winners in divorce, only losers - with children coming off worst.

The Law Society firmly believes in the non-conflict approach to divorce. That is why today we are launching the Family Law Panel, Family Lawyers. This is a unique scheme designed to help people facing divorce to find the right solicitor to support them through this difficult phase in their lives.

Couples are under huge amounts of stress when getting divorced. Some people approach their solicitor for initial advice and others only visit a solicitor when every other route has failed. The very last thing they should then face is the prospect of being launched into a legal battle.

Everyone recognises this. At the moment, solicitors try to make the process as painless as possible. Family Lawyers will take this philosophy one step further.

When the Family Law Act 1996 is fully implemented in 2000, before couples can even get divorced, they will have had to have sorted out all the financial aspects of their married lives.

Agreement will have to be reached on the family home, where the children are to live and how often they see both parents, the division of any assets and the rescheduling of any debts. Only then will a couple be able to finalise the divorce order. Family Lawyers have a commitment to ensuring that the first part of this new process will be decided using common sense and fairness. If it is at all possible, couples will be asked to communicate with each other and reach agreement outside the court.

Of course, this will not always be possible. Many marriages have disintegrated to the point that couples can no longer talk to one another; there may well have been some violence involved. Family Lawyers are skilled in negotiating on behalf of their client, working towards the best possible outcome for a situation which the couple think is hopeless. Couples who can still communicate with one another will be encouraged to discuss how best to resolve visits with the children, the splitting up of property and financial support where appropriate.

People find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between the issue of children and that of property. Divorces have become driven by the acquisition of assets, rather than a fair and amicable resolution. Family Lawyers are trying to persuade their clients that the best route is the one that leads to understanding and fair resolution, not fierce court battles and mud slinging.

Divorce is a very difficult process. What is needed is a legal process that enables people to resolve their disputes sensibly. A process that helps people to move on and build a new life.

Money means power, in any relationship, whether business or marriage. The availability of legal aid and the present approach of Family Lawyers helps to bring about a level playing field and reverse some of the present power imbalances between men and women. We must never go back to the bygone age in which the financially stronger party dictated the outcome of most family disputes. Society doesn't want to turn back the clock.

Hilary Siddle is chairman of the Law Society's Family Law Committee

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