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How to find the best family lawyer

How to find the best family lawyer

I need somebody. And not just anybody…

How to find the best family lawyer

Court proceedings, whether in divorce, civil partnership or involving children, are stressful. (Just to state the bleeding bloody obvious).  A family law matter is rendered even harder if the solicitor you have instructed does not exactly fill you with confidence.  Even worse is the prospect of having to turn up at court (a potentially intimidating experience for anyone) when your stomach is doing back flips and you don’t feel your legal representative is fully in command of their brief.  So I want to share my thoughts on how to find the best family lawyer.

I have huge sympathy for those lawyers who still offer public funded (legal aid) family work.  Their caseloads are huge.  Their clients are anxious.  The law is not rendered any less complex just because your client is on legal aid.  Most of the time, the pressure is so intense, that the best you can do is to constantly ‘firefight’.  The firm’s overheads are just as high as the private law firm down the road but the legal aid family law firm gets paid only a fraction of the fees that private firms will demand.  Family lawyer burnout is a sad reality.

And so to the virtual postbag…

Which contains this plea from M:

I really need some help. I am petrified my solicitor is not worth their salt as I am struggling alot with the E1 form and not getting a hold my hand experience. I have seen they are not listed on the Resolution.org site and my ex is taking me to court in three weeks. I am legal aid funded and have been with this same solicitor throughout a two year ordeal, trying to also be a full time mummy.  It may be complete paralysing fear…..but I have now heard some bad comments from a Domestic Violence Support group I have been attending about my solicitor. I would be grateful for any help! Thank you.

M later clarified that Resolution had confirmed that her solicitor was a Resolution member.  My first reaction upon seeing M’s predicament was that she should immediately contact her solicitor and explain her concerns.  If I was M’s solicitor, I would want to know if one of my clients felt so desperately anxious  about their situation.  It is rather surprising to see that M’s case has been going for two years. M refers to an impending court hearing and the need to complete a Form E1.  I am therefore assuming that M was not married to her ex-partner but that they had a child or children together and that the impending court hearing is in relation to a Children Act (Schedule 1) case. Such cases allow applications for periodical payment, lump sum orders and property adjustment orders on behalf of a child or children of parents who are not married or in a civil partnership.

I do not know the details of M’s case and therefore know better than to comment any further but I can understand how the prospect of changing solicitors in the middle of court proceedings will be daunting.  However, if M gives her solicitor a chance to make her feel that there is a clear game plan for her case then she may have the assurance she seeks.  The Form E1 is a much reduced version of the full Form E (used by married couples in divorce proceedings).  Form E1 tends to require factual information only like income and liabilities whereas Form E has narrative sections at the end which present a great opportunity to present your case well or a blissfully ignorant way to ruin it.

So, for M, I think she needs to meet with her solicitor to make sure her Form E1 is up to scratch.  It will be for her solicitor (or perhaps, her barrister) at the hearing to explain to the court what M and her child/children wish to achieve.  Because Form E1 does not have the narrative boxes to explain the salient points of a case (an oversight in the design of these forms, in my humble view) I would normally provide the court with a chronology of key events and a summary or position statement on M’s behalf so the court (and M’s ex) is fully aware of the relevant issues in the case.

There may be all sorts of reasons why M’s solicitor hasn’t had the time to make M feel looked after. If M feels that the explanation provided is unsatisfactory then she should say so and her solicitor should deal with the matter as a complaint and seek to resolve M’s dissatisfaction.  If M feels the proposed solution is not good enough or if she progresses to the hearing and still feels that she is not receiving a proper service then she should approach another firm (it will need to be one that offers legal aid) to see if they feel able to take it over.  Although this transfer will require the permission of the Legal Services Commission who administer the legal aid pursestrings.  There should be time between this forthcoming hearing and the next one to change legal firms if that remains M’s wish.  I wish her well.

Choosing a new solicitor

I do appreciate how hard it can be to identify a good solicitor when you may not have a recommendation to act upon.  I know that there are plenty of online  legal directories springing up that claim to have the details of the finest lawyers around.  Most of these directories, especially the ones that pop up after a Google search are… how can I put this? Shite.  Yes, that about sums them up.  I am asked all the time how people can work out who are the really good family lawyers.  I was asked so many times that I committed my thoughts to an eBook, imaginatively titled: How to find the best Family Lawyers.  My eBook is free to anyone who cares to subscribe to my blog, using one on those sign-up boxes that lurk around the edges of the page or pop up when you least expect it. Go on, subscribe.  Knock yourself out.

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Divorce calculator: Journey Costs

Journey cost calculator for Divorce Finance Toolkit

I like calculators. They are really useful when you’ve run out of fingers to count on.

This is a journey cost calculator. In many divorce and separation cases the earned income has to stretch a long way. Here are a few scenarios where this calculator may prove useful:

    1. If you are divorcing and making a financial claim you will probably have to complete a financial disclosure questionnaire called a Form E. It asks for all sorts of information on people’s finances and one of the sections in particular is called income needs. Invariably, at first attempt, many people underestimate their true levels of expenditure. This calculator can help to focus on the true cost of the mileage that may be clocked up in getting to work.
    2. Or, you are negotiating with your ex over the amount of spousal maintenance or child maintenance that should be paid. One of you may require a car to get to work. That wage may be providing for maintenance payments. The cost of getting to and from work can be significant with the cost of fuel at the moment. This calculator may help to show just how much is being spent. This unavoidable cost could be factored into the discussions.
    3. Or a level of maintenance has been agreed and in place for a number of years but the paying or receiving party has a change of circumstances involving more motor travel, perhaps in relation to a work relocation. So the calculator could assist in showing why the change of circumstances means an adjustment in maintenance is required.
    4. Another scenario is where contact to children is being discussed. One of the parents may have to do a fair bit of mileage over time picking up or dropping off the kids for contact. It is a cost that could demonstrate why the parent paying maintenance will struggle unless this essential expenditure is taken into account. Or, for instance, if it is a mother working part-time and doing most of the motoring around to allow contact, why the maintenance she is receiving may need to have an element in it to cover this cost of travelling.

Ideally, I wish I could find a calculator that would allow road, tax, servicing and insurance to be incorporated but no luck so far.

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Video: How to request a pension valuation on divorce

Completing Form E within divorce proceedings is difficult enough but one of the main mistakes is to underestimate the length of time it takes for pension providers to cough up the pension information.  But in the first place, it helps to submit the correct document: this is Form P (Pension Inquiry) to each pension fund holder. Using Form P is essential, otherwise the pension providers will not know the context of your request is a divorce and therefore will not give you the information needed for Form E.

Here is a short video on:

  • how to find the Form P for free on the internet;
  • the relationship between Form E and Form P;
  • how to complete Form P.

Form P is essentially used for the majority of private pension funds.  A different pension information request form is used if you are, for instance, in the armed services,  a police officer or a teacher.  As ever, I can always post on these exceptional circumstances if there is enough interest.

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Divorce proceedings and Form E changes

Statement of truth for new Form E

There’s nothing like a rule change in the world of family law and divorce proceedings to get me excited. What divorce procedure rules could change this time, I ask myself?  Could it be the binning of the wilfully old-fashioned and plain stupid requirement for one spouse to put all the blame for the breakdown of the marriage on the other spouse before a divorce can be granted?  Sadly no.  This Government, like the others before it, has no backbone.

The tinkering is all about making the language of law a bit clearer.  One (apparently minor) change is a further assault upon the Latin words that lawyers (but mostly, clients) still love to use.  There shall be no more mention of the word AFFIDAVIT.  Absolutely verboten.  Forget you ever used it and call it a Statement instead.  This means that clients will no longer be SWORN to their affidavits but rather VERIFY their statements of truth.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m a modern kind of guy.  I can make my own sandwiches, iron my shirts and think it’s perfectly proper for grown men to cry (under certain, rigidly defined circumstances).  But what is wrong with Affidavit?  It rolls off the tongue nicely, especially after a few practice sessions; it sounds vaguely grand, dustily majestic and quite deserving of the gravitas associated with being SWORN to it.  But no, it has now gone the way of the Dodo.  My clients don’t want statements of truth, they want the full monty AFFIDAVIT.  It is a serious process and they want to be seen taking it seriously.  A statement of truth is the cheap, shiny toilet paper painfully encountered in your local park’s public loos.  An AFFIDAVIT is a plump roll of three-ply cushioned velvet found in the Ritz cloakrooms.

I feel much better now that I’ve got that off my chest.  When I calm down fully, I will deal with the changes brought about which have some relevance to the patient readers of this blog.

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Form E Top Tips

Divorce, Next ExitI might have known that I could not write a blog aimed at helping people to get their heads around divorce finance issues without coming back, time and again, to Form E.  The magnificent, overblown Form E.  If Form E were a film it would be Citizen Kane.  If it were a novel it would be War and Peace.

Despite the fact that Form E is designed as a financial questionnaire, even its apparently straightforward sections can provoke confusion and mistakes.  A few of my clients had problems with Section 2.3 which asks for the listing of all bank and building society accounts.  Here are a few pointers on this particular section

Form E Section 2.3 

Details of all personal bank, building society and National Savings Accounts that you hold or have held at any time in the last twelve months and which are or were either in your own name or in which you have or have had any interest. This applies whether any such account is in credit or in debit. For joint accounts give your interest and the name of the other account holder. If the account is overdrawn, show a minus figure.

If you have money in another person’s bank account, you must still disclose your interest (the amount you have in the account) at this section of the Form E. TIP If you have online access to your bank accounts you can usually print off the last 12 months’ bank statements directly to your printer.  If you are having difficulty obtaining missing bank statements, your bank is obliged to provide up to the last 6 years’ worth of bank statements provided you state clearly it is a request under the Data Protection Act 1998 for which the maximum charge is £10.00. There are some common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Forgetting to include details (and statements) for accounts closed in the past 12 months.  If your spouse is aware that you had such an account but you do not disclose it, it can arouse suspicion and mistrust.  Remember to include the closing statement so it is clear the account has been closed.
  2. If you do not want your spouse to know where you are living (arising from a genuine concern for your safety or that of your children) and have withheld your address in the divorce or civil partnership proceedings, you should ‘redact’ (blank out with a thick felt pen) any identifying geographical information such as your address and also any local ATM cashpoints that you use.  DO NOT BLANK OUT AMOUNTS OF MONEY AS THAT WOULD NOT BE JUSTIFIED.
  3. Ensure you have complete sets of statements for each account.  Through no fault of your own, you may be missing a few pages and if there are significant changes in the balances of the accounts then your spouse may think you are hiding something.
  4. If the bank account you disclose is a joint one then make sure you only put down 50% of the final balance as your interest.
  5. Finally, do not forget to deduct the value of any overdrawn accounts rather than adding them in.  This happens more often than you may think, especially if there are 8 or 9  bank accounts all jostling for space in this section of the Form E.
There.  Hope that makes it all clear.  
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The mysterious case of the missing house

 

Very occasionally in divorce proceedings one spouse will forget to disclose one of their assets on Form E, nothing major you understand, just one of those big bricks and mortar things called a house. It’s easily done.  Often, just a gentle nudge by way of an enquiring solicitor’s letter or even a court approved questionnaire if you are in the middle of financial proceedings will do the trick and get the response: “Oh, that house…”

But what can you do if the spouse swears blind that there is no other property even though you distinctly remember them whispering about it to their accountant or investment manager?  What do you do if you have no idea where the property may be, not even which town it may be sitting in?  You can’t do a Land Registry search unless you have a specific address.  Or can you?

Here’s a little trick.  Ask your spouse to help you complete a form from Land Registry called PN1 which allows a search in the Index of Proprietors’ Names. That is, it allows a search against a name and will reveal the details of any properties owned by that person.  The Land Registry will not accept the form unless your spouse has provided their consent on the form.  But if your spouse has nothing to hide they will be happy to complete the form and let you do the search.  If they refuse, you can always ask the court to draw an adverse inference from the refusal by concluding that there is indeed something to hide  In that case, if the court is on your side you can ask the court to order a search in the Index of Proprietors’ Names.  This does not require your spouse’s consent.

This approach is not foolproof though.  It is possible that your spouse owns the property through a company so you will need submit a search in the name of the company as well as the name of your spouse.  More difficult still would be if your spouse had given funds to a private individual who has purchased the property in that individual’s name.

But despite these drawbacks, this is a useful weapon to have in the disclosure armoury.

 

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Post-divorce cohabitation

Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  Both were in short supply on the occasion I represented a client at a Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) hearing in an outer London county court whose architect had taken to heart the brutalist aesthetic of the early 1970′s.  My client had divorced his wife some 10 years previously and had been paying her maintenance ever since.  In the original court hearing my client had claimed that his wife was in a relationship of cohabitation with her new partner.  The wife vehemently denied this, my client’s lawyers had said it was a kite that would barely fly and so the case settled on the first day of the trial.

Fast forward to my involvement after the husband discovers that his ex-wife is shacked up with another man and they were happily settled in another jurisdiction.  My client didn’t care in the slightest about the relationship in itself but further investigation revealed that, surprise, surprise, the new man was in fact the same man about whom the husband had harboured suspicions a decade earlier. This new man was working.  Why, therefore, my client asked, should he carry on paying maintenance for his ex-wife when this spousal maintenance was directly contributing to the living standards of a man quite capable of earning his own living?

This was a case in which the children were grown up and quite independent of the former spouses.

My attempts to invite voluntary financial disclosure from the ex-wife with a view to negotiating a cessation or downwards variation of maintenance met with little success.  My client therefore had to issue variation proceedings (Matrimonial Causes Act, 1973, section 31) asking the court to either terminate his spousal maintenance payments or at least to reduce them.

The ex-wife made two attempts at producing her Form E but the contents were evasive to say the least. Eventually, I was able to obtain an admission that she had cohabited with her new partner for the past seven years.  It was clear that she had gone to considerable lengths to conceal the fact of the co-habitation from my client.  Legally, there was no reason for her to do so as the original court order from ten years ago, awarding her spousal maintenance, had not stipulated that the payments should end or be reduced in the event of her cohabitation with a new partner.

The proceedings were settled at the FDR with the wife agreeing a reduction in her spousal maintenance.  The judge, whose role at the FDR is to assist the parties to reach compromise and avoid the lottery and costs of a trial, was not required to reach any conclusions (what lawyers would call a finding of fact) about whether the former wife had deliberately attempted to conceal her co-habitation from my client, or whether she had attempted to mislead me, my client and the court by filing inadequate Forms E before making a late admission that she had, indeed, been cohabiting.  The judge was unwilling to comment adversely upon these matters and criticise the wife.  My client was not willing to incur the further expense of going to trial so that is why a deal was struck.

I had to explain to my client that if his ex-wife had married her new man, then the spousal maintenance payments would end automatically.  But shacking up was different.  The English family court does not regard a relationship of cohabitation as having the same gravity as one of marriage.  So, the logic goes, my client’s obligations to his ex-wife arising out of his marriage, were of such significance that they could not be displaced by the ‘inferior’ relationship of mere cohabitation entered into by his ex-wife.  He must continue to pay maintenance, enriching the joint financial position of his former wife and her new (working) partner.

I wondered if the ex-wife would appreciate that her relationship of seven years (I suspect closer to ten years) was inferior to the relationship of marriage she had formerly enjoyed with my client.  I wondered if any cohabitees, the length and breadth of this jurisdiction, would appreciate the second-class nature of their relationships compared to their married counterparts.

Why then was the ex-wife so intent on concealing her new relationship when there was nothing in the original court order that would prevent her co-habiting and losing her spousal maintenance?  I think the answer is that she knew, instinctively, morally if you will, that it was wrong to continue receiving the maintenance when she was in a new and settled relationship.  That is why she concealed her partner.  I think this judicial attitude towards co-habitation has to change.  I consider it is out of step with how a significant proportion of the English population choose to lead their lives.   The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 belongs to, well… 1973 and brutalist architecture.  Society has moved on since then.  Forty per cent of all children in this jurisdiction are born to unmarried couples.

I had hoped that Parliament would revisit the rights of cohabitants and in so doing, enable cohabitants to seek financial relief from each other in certain circumstances.   This would then open the way for ex-spouses to be relieved of their financial maintenance obligations when their ex was in a settled relationship of cohabitation with a new partner.  Unfortunately, the recommendations of the 2007 Law Commission Consultation Paper suggesting legal rights and remedies as between cohabitants was quietly shelved by the Government last week.  That is a spineless and neglectful decision.  Previous administrations have at least had the courage to wait until the Daily Mail ran an adverse editorial before running for the hills.  The present Government, whose earlier decision to take the axe to public funding for most family law cases, is hardly covering itself in progressive, legislative glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Form E: bank and building society accounts

I’ve had a few clients come unstuck on the dreaded Form E financial disclosure form.  It’s a beast of a document and is the foundation of the disclosure process in divorce and civil partnership proceedings.  I will be posting on some of the more problematic sections of this document such as paragraph 2.3 which asks for:

2.3 Details of all personal bank, building society and National Savings Accounts that you hold or have held at any time in the last twelve months and which are or were either in your own name or in which you have or have had any interest. This applies whether any such account is in credit or in debit. For joint accounts give your interest and the name of the other account holder. If the account is overdrawn, show a minus figure.

If you have money in another person’s bank account, you must still disclose your interest (the amount you have in the account) at this section of the Form E.

If you have online access to your bank accounts you can usually print off the last 12 months’ bank statements directly to your printer.  If you are having difficulty obtaining missing bank statements, your bank is obliged to provide up to the last 6 years’ worth of bank statements provided you state clearly it is a request under the Data Protection Act 1998 for which the maximum charge is £10.00.

There are some common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Forgetting to include details (and statements) for accounts closed in the past 12 months.  If your spouse is aware that you had such an account but you do not disclose it, it can arouse suspicion and mistrust.  Remember to include the closing statement so it is clear the account has been closed.
  2. If you do not want your spouse to know where you are living (arising from a genuine concern for your safety or that of your children) and have withheld your address in the divorce or civil partnership proceedings, you should ‘redact’ (blank out with a thick felt pen) any identifying geographical information such as your address and also any local ATM cashpoints that you use.  DO NOT BLANK OUT AMOUNTS OF MONEY AS THAT WOULD NOT BE JUSTIFIED.
  3. Ensure you have complete sets of statements for each account.  Through no fault of your own, you may be missing a few pages and if there are significant changes in the balances of the accounts then your spouse may think you are hiding something.
  4. If the bank account you disclose is a joint one then make sure you only put down 50% of the final balance as your interest.
  5. Finally, do not forget to deduct the value of any overdrawn accounts rather than adding them in.  This happens more often than you may think, especially if there are 8 or 9  bank accounts all jostling for space in this section of the Form E.

Good luck!

 

 

 

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Form E=MC2

Form E – Towards a new theory of relativity

With all apologies to Einstein I would like to propose a re-formulation of his classic theory E=MC2.  As follows:

E = Form E

M= Matrimonial

C = Confusion

2= both spouses/civil partners

The expense of the divorce case is accelerated by the Form E creating Matrimonial Confusion in the minds of both spouses.  Many people struggle with the Form E  (some lawyers too, I dare say) and it is a form that can catch out the unwary.  Luckily, instead of just one Form E, we now have three Forms E.  Simple.

The Family Procedure Rules 2010 came into force on 6th April, 2011.  One of the changes introduced is the splitting of the olde worlde Form E into three new forms:

Form E – this is the document that should be used by husbands and wives or civil partners in divorce or civil partnership dissolution proceedings to disclose their finances when applying for a Financial Order or if applying for financial relief following a divorce or dissolution overseas.

Form E1 – this is the document that should be used for any other financial remedy in the County Court (in other words, do not use this form if you are divorcing your spouse or civil partner).  Form E1 is suitable for claims made on behalf of children under Schedule 1 Children Act 1989 (for instance, if the children’s parents are not married or in a civil partnership).

Form E2 – this is the document to use when applying for a financial order in the Family Proceedings Court (the Magistrates’ Court).  It is simplified and presumes that the parties will have a small capital base and modest income.

To attempt to shine some light on these Forms I will be dealing with certain pages or sections of the documents as and when they appear to cause some difficulty right here

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