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Barristers take on solicitors in battle for survival: cost of divorce to fall

Date:23 SEP 2014
Third slide
A team of family law barristers will today overturn centuries of legal tradition by being first to offer the public a fixed fee divorce service designed to keep their clients out of court.

The team of barristers from Middlesbrough are dispensing with the wig and gown to help warring couples reach out of court settlements over child arrangements and family finances.

The decision to encroach on the traditional turf of high street solicitors is the unintended consequence of the government’s swingeing cuts to the family justice system. Following the withdrawal of legal aid for most family law matters, solicitors are instructing fewer and fewer barristers to represent publicly funded clients at court. As well as being responsible for the ballooning number of parents now representing themselves at court, it is threatening barristers with financial ruin.

In July, the Bar Council warned that legal aid family barristers were forcing many to question their futures following an online poll of its members. Over two-thirds of impacted family barristers reported a drop in fee income while ‘many respondents’ questioned the ‘viability’ of a career at the bar and were ‘actively considering’ whether they have a long-term future following the cuts.

This should not surprise. In the first year of cuts to legal aid, family law barristers across the UK saw their legal aid income targeted by government plummet from £38m to £15m. Impacted barristers are therefore staring to take advantage of recent changes to Direct Access regulation that effectively allows them to offer the same services as high street family solicitors.

The group of barristers from Middlesbrough have formed their own collective called Divorce Puzzle to market themselves directly to the public at reduced rates to solicitors.
Collette Price, a family barrister with over 15 years experience and co-founder of Divorce Puzzle, said:

'It might seem bizarre for barristers to start marketing themselves as legal advisers to keep clients out of court but the truth is we can use this knowledge to save separating partners a huge amount of money by helping them reach agreement between themselves.

We can do this at a lower cost than solicitors because our overheads are less. Barristers are also entirely comfortable with fixed fee options while solicitors are still working out ways to move away from hourly rate services.'
Divorce Puzzle will offer a new approach for resolving family disputes called Lawyer-Supported Mediation that is presently being piloted by a small network of solicitors in London and the north of England. The service fuses fixed fee legal advice with family mediation and aims to resolve family disputes by encouraging effective communication when the impulse among separating partners is to fight.

'Data from government shows eight of 10 people that begin mediation go on to reach agreement. By providing affordable fixed fee advice in parallel, we hope to encourage more separating couples to explore mediation,' said Price.

Marc Lopatin, trained mediator and founder of social enterprise Advantage Resolution, which developed and administers Lawyer-Supported Mediation, said:

'If we’re going to put the interests of children first and keep more parents out of the courtroom, we urgently need to put effective communication at the core of family law services. We’re already working with a committed network of solicitors to deliver this and it’s extremely encouraging that barristers are starting to think along similar lines.'
Divorce Puzzle will be marketing Lawyer-Supported Mediation across North Yorkshire and parts of the northeast.

An article by Marc Lopatin, 'Growing family law services in a post-LASPO world: mediation as collateral beneficiary' will appear in the October issue of Family Law.

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