Emotional turmoil is one thing, but when it comes to splitting up, divorce can lead to financial heartache as well. The cuts to legal aid in divorce cases came into force earlier this year, prompting a surge in couples who decided to go ahead on their own, in order to save as much money as possible. With legal fees on the rise it makes sense to keep costs to a minimum, but those who go through a divorce without advice could find there is trouble in store later on.
More than two in five marriages end in divorce, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. Ending things quickly and cheaply with a DIY-divorce is appealing but if there are any mistakes, it could ultimately cost you much more in the future. Moreover, many DIY services are only offering help with the paperwork, without giving you any legal advice; while this is cheap, it isn’t necessarily the right solution.
“Getting the paperwork right is crucial to avoid stressful and lengthy delays, and I’ve seen a huge number of what should be entirely straightforward, undefended divorce cases held back for 18 months and longer because of errors in paperwork, with the court having to return documents several times,” says myBarrister family law specialist Joanna Toch.
Court fees are fixed and unavoidable. For example, it now costs £410 to start a divorce, but for many people the real problem is that legal fees are so high – an experienced, high-street family lawyer will charge upwards of £200 per hour plus VAT – and in April, legal aid was removed for all divorcing couples, except those affected by domestic violence, child protection matters and forced marriages.
With countless online DIY divorce services charging less than £100, it’s a no-brainer for many couples which route to take. Quickie-divorce.com, for example, provides all the paperwork and guidance notes for £37, and if you pay an extra £20 they will complete the papers and send them to court for you. A similar service is available for £69 from Divorce-online.co.uk.
This may be suitable if you have a very straightforward, uncontested case – why pay an extortionate hourly rate to do the same thing through a lawyer? But problems arise, however, is if there are any complications such as custody issues, pensions, or if a property is owned jointly; these websites are likely to fall short and the couples using them may find they are completely out of their depth.
One common problem is finding a fair way to divide pensions, so that partners who have given up work to look after children don’t lose out. Without advice it’s all too easy to see how one party might end up without their fair share.
“Dividing the pension at divorce can be complicated, but in some situations it can be as valuable as the family home so it shouldn’t be overlooked,” says Sarah Pennells, founder of SavvyWoman.co.uk, a finance website for women. “I’ve had emails from women who have arranged their divorce without the involvement of a divorce lawyer and who haven’t realised how valuable their husband’s pension is.”
Another significant concern is that if there are no court orders to deal with specific financial matters, the door is open for either spouse to make a claim at any stage in the future.
These pitfalls don’t mean you automatically have to go down the more traditional – and for that you can read expensive – route. Collaborative family law, where each partner has their own lawyer and the finances and other aspects are sorted out around a table, can be cheaper than a traditional lawyer-led divorce. If as a couple you can maintain some kind of formal relationship, you can also use the services of a mediator.
“Over two thirds of people beginning mediation reach an agreement, which is spectacularly efficient,” says Marc Lopatin, founder of Lawyersupportedmediation.com, which brings together a network of experienced family lawyers and mediators. “The problem is that it is incredibly difficult to get people to the mediator.”
This type of mediation is a welcome and cost-effective alternative to going to court, as the legal fees are agreed beforehand and cost around half the price of instructing lawyers on hourly rates.
Some law firms offer their own fixed-fee deals if you need legal advice, including the Co-operative Legal Service’s “managed divorce” service which costs £570 for the petitioner and £360 for the respondent. There are also a number of online services offering a halfway house, with access to legal advice without paying through the nose. For example, IntelligentDivorce.co.uk charges a fixed fee of £499 plus VAT per person for co-operating couples; it helps with the paperwork and arranges advice from an impartial family law barrister to decide whether ongoing maintenance should be paid and if any pensions should be split. Once both parties are in agreement, this is turned into a legally binding consent order, drafted by solicitors.
Alternatively, the myBarrister website provides what is essentially pay-as-you-go access to barristers. So if you are willing to undertake some of the administration yourself, you can still speak to a barrister for advice at any point during the divorce proceedings; again, it agrees a fixed fee in advance, so you won’t get stung by unexpected costs.