'Why I'd recommend my £40 divorce'

When marriages crumble, you needn't call the toughest lawyer in town. There is a far cheaper alternative: a DIY divorce. By Sophie Radice
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The Independent Online

When my first husband left me and my two-year-old son, family members, friends and acquaintances advised me to take him "to the cleaners" despite the fact that he had nothing much to take. Understandably they wanted to see me get some kind of justice and him some kind of punishment and that's why I found myself going to the Lincoln's Inn chambers of a highly regarded divorce lawyer. I emerged one hour later (and £400 poorer) in a state of spiralling paranoia and anxiety. It had been suggested that my husband visited prostitutes ("We all know why men visit the Far East, don't we?"), that he sounded like the kind of person that had been unfaithful throughout our marriage and that on no account could he be trusted alone with our child.

When my first husband left me and my two-year-old son, family members, friends and acquaintances advised me to take him "to the cleaners" despite the fact that he had nothing much to take. Understandably they wanted to see me get some kind of justice and him some kind of punishment and that's why I found myself going to the Lincoln's Inn chambers of a highly regarded divorce lawyer. I emerged one hour later (and £400 poorer) in a state of spiralling paranoia and anxiety. It had been suggested that my husband visited prostitutes ("We all know why men visit the Far East, don't we?"), that he sounded like the kind of person that had been unfaithful throughout our marriage and that on no account could he be trusted alone with our child.

A table of high-profile divorces was recently published, in the Chambers Guide to the Legal Profession. It is bound to have attracted the attention of far less wealthy couples to the benefits of having a hard-nosed, kick-ass lawyer in the event of marital breakdown. It ranks this year's five high-profile marriage break-ups in order of the size of the pay-out. Pablo Picasso's daughter, Paloma, and Argentine playwright Rafael Lopez-Cambil, headed the list with an estimated £250m settlement; Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger were in second place with an estimated £10m; while Sheryl Gascoigne reportedly won a £1.5m settlement from her ex.

The average couple tends to feel that to get what they can out of the ruins of a marriage, and perhaps to reap some official revenge at the same time, they need the services of the best (ie toughest) legal representation they can afford. Luckily I came to my senses before the short, panic-inducing letters were sent to my husband which would no doubt have sent him running to a lawyer.

I found it offensive to have the private details of my marriage turned into a case whose characteristics she assumed to know. The man she described was not in the least like the husband I had spent six (mostly happy) years with. More importantly, I didn't want my son to get even a whiff of a feeling that his father was my adversary, and I knew that our money would be far better spent on him than on fuelling an emotional and legal war. So I ended up getting a divorce petition myself from Somerset House and filling in different forms over a period of about six months. Once we had both got over the archaic and legalistic language of the forms, we found it quite straightforward. We kept everything vague and open. He would give me as much money as he could (a lot at the beginning, nothing for a while and something now) and would be able to see his son whenever he wanted. The whole thing cost £40 (now £150) and was relatively stress-free. So why don't more people do it?

"If you are young and have a quite uncomplicated set-up, I can see that the DIY divorce might work," says Jane Cunnington of the London Marriage Guidance. "It also could make you feel you are regaining control over your circumstances at a time when you are probably suffering from feelings of failure over a marriage break-up. However, for older couples with greater financial complications, such as investments and pension plans, and those with difficult relationships, I think it would be extremely unwise."

Helen Howard, family lawyer and mediator, and author of The Which? Guide to Divorce, also points out the pitfalls. "Actually I think that it is about as smart as doing your own conveyancing," she says. "It may seem very attractive to be able to sort things out quickly, but you might not serve your best interests financially and in the long term."

Howard sees the future of divorce moving away from the idea of couples slugging it out in the divorce courts and towards increased use of legally trained mediators. The Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) are trained to steer both parties through the mess of emotions. The aim is that the couple should be able to go forward at their own pace and, importantly, still feel they have ownership of their own past rather than have it repackaged into legal ammunition.

"The trouble is that once you have entered into something like that, you close any possibility of being able to communicate with each other in a civilised and humane way," says one veteran of a long and drawn-out divorce case. "It is very difficult to forgive someone for humiliating you like that."

Seven years on, I feel that I was not particularly financially smart, but my ex-husband and I get on well. My son is happy to visit him when he decides to (rather than at some set court- order time) and that is worth a lot to me. I know that if we had gone through any third party we would probably still be fighting it out, if not in the law courts then on my doorstep.