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Divorce Finance Toolkit App post

‘Appy Days ahead?

I read with interest the news that the UK Government has committed £14M of funds towards the development of an App that will assist divorcing spouses and separating couples, especially in relation to child care after parting.

I’m all for new technology if it empowers people who would otherwise struggle to afford the fees of divorce lawyers.  And yet, I can’t help wondering why it will cost £14M to develop such an App.  Sure, the quality of the content has to be there and that won’t be cheap.  What’s more,  the App developers may be kept busy building in some useful tools and calculators and that will cost a few bob.  But £14M?  Really?

I suspect, as usual, the news may have been spun too much or has suffered from mis-reporting.  If this initiative is to have a £14M price tag, i expect that the British public will find themselves treated to a website of information, online tools, some half-decent signposting to other resources AND AN APP thrown in because that is the sort of sexy thing we all like on our iPhone and Android devices.  (And Blackberries… if they’re still making them).

If that is the case, then I wonder: why bother?  There are a number of perfectly good websites in existence offering quality information and some excellent financial tools: I have listed them here.  An app is fine but a fully functioning website is better.  A fully functioning website is delightful, but a properly funded family justice system is simply splendid.

Now I come to think of it, if you deduct the tens of millions saved from the planned withdrawal of legal aid from the majority of family law cases and the tens of millions already slashed from the court budgets, £14M  on an App starts to look like a PR stunt.   Of course I know these are times of austerity, so the UK Treasury has to be tighter than a shark’s arse in a power dive, but I had envisaged helpful Apps to be a contribution from the entrepreneurial private sector, not a replacement for core, State-funded services.

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Freebie

 

In my last post, provocatively entitled Why you don’t need a divorce lawyer. A Reprise,  I announced that MyOffspring had kindly offered my firm, Family Law Partners, free subscriptions for their online service  limited to the first 200 speedy applicants.

 

Here is the procedure for becoming a free premium subscriber for the first 12 months

 

  1. Point your browser to http://www.myoffspring.com
  2. On the right-hand side, just under the login fields, click the “Register” link
  3. Choose the 12 month subscription (£49.95) and continue to register. Note that your user name must NOT contain spaces
  4. On the next page, enter your coupon code (FAMILYLAWPARTNERS)
  5. Proceed to PayPal to complete the transaction. This will set up a subscription which is free for the first year. You can cancel the subscription at any time before the next payment is due. The first year is entirely free.
  6. If you have any problems, you can e-mail support@myoffspring.com for help.

Many thanks to Karim and the team at MyOffspring for their generous offer.

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First: a confession…

I used to be one of those lawyers who felt distinctly nervous at the thought of changes in legal services that could impact upon my livelihood.  But then, as a person entering the law as a second career shackled with monstrous debt from my legal courses and young, hungry children, I was always likely to be of a nervous disposition. But as time has gone on I have learned to embrace change.  In fact, I positively welcome it.  I like to see the positives in change rather than the threat.  There is no greater agent of change than technology. Technology can deliver services in ways we could not have imagined some 15 years ago.  Legal services are not immune.  And I am not referring to the now commonplace changes introduced by innovations such as:

  • email
  • Skype
  • ‘Always on’ and synchronised services like Dropbox or Googledocs unleashing the full potential of mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad.

Lawyers are beginning to utilise these technologies to help their clients.  That’s the way it should be.  For too long, lawyers have thought of reasons why their established patterns of working should not change even though client pressures were building to demand greater flexibility in the delivery of legal services.  After all, why should the provision of legal services not be client-led?

This blog is aimed at that section of the public making one of the painful transitions called separation, divorce or dissolution of their civil partnerships. I am communicating directly with people who may need to access advice on matters like divorce.  I am precisely NOT writing this blog for the benefit of my professional colleagues specialising in family law.  They are very welcome to read my posts and take issue if they like but they are not my intended audience.  This is the reason I am not banging on about the profound changes to be wrought by the Legal Services Act: the public don’t give a toss and why should they?

So what are the interesting strands, now emerging, that are likely to shape the future of family law services delivery?

Unbundling

This simply means that the public may want to select from a menu of legal services: picking and choosing those bits they cannot do themselves with any confidence.  But, being prepared to roll up their sleeves and have a go at the aspects that look less daunting and may owe more to procedure than legal interpretation.  This has been going on for some time but the pace appears to have accelerated.  People having to deal with divorce have always been able to deal with the proceedings themselves but the availability of online services has allowed for the elements of the proceedings that can be process-driven to be offered directly to the public.  The divorce process (but not, in all cases, the financial aspects) can be broken down and delivered online.  Mark Keenan’s Divorce-Online has been doing this for years.  There have been other entrants into the online divorce services market but Divorce-Online, being the original, still appears to be the best.

Community

Online forums attracted to discrete issues are creating their own ‘demand agendas’ that bypass traditional professional services or dictate the terms of engagement with them.  If you have a look at Wikivorce you will see a strong element of self-help driven on the forum pages.  The members posting on the user forums will often use the term STBX (soon-to-be-ex [partner]) when referring to the other spouse.  The other members will provide sympathy, support and some direct suggestions for how to tackle a problem with a STBX. It is clear that there are some comments posted by forum users with legal experience, possibly solicitors or legal executives, but they are not allowed to ‘own’ the pages, or even, as far as I can tell, use the forum pages to profile their legal firms.

Another good example of community action is  Suzy Miller’s Starting Over Show (SOS). An online environment that supports and encourages divorcing and separating couples to explore ‘better’ ways of resolving disputes  with an emphasis on mediation and the collaborative process.  An example of Suzy’s bottom-up approach is Divorce in a Box which provides vouchers to a range of services, both legal, and therapeutic.

I also like Only Dads and Only Mums.  These sites offer support for single dads and mums and signpost resources for people who might initially be shell-shocked at single parent status.

Connection

Look at MyOffspring.  This is a relatively new offering and I spoke about it on my companion blog, Larkinslaw,when I said:

“…  the MyOffspring team want to offer separating parents an online environment that provides a suite of  tools and resources that will allow them to communicate with each other and even their children using the now familiar tropes of social networking.  There will be the ability to use a schedule manager, join forum debates, access advice from a range of experts on family matters (both legal and therapeutic), and even upload materials for sharing with your ex-partner that can be timestamped and even geo-tagged.

The emergence of online offerings like MyOffspring throws up some interesting questions.

  • Will the ability to communicate with your ex-partner in a secure online environment in real-time improve the prospects for constructive dialogue and therefore improve the outcomes for children?
  • Will the ability to upload materials to a secure server reduce the room for conflict between those parents where the common cry of the parent who is not the primary carer of the children is that they are kept in the dark despite enjoying parental responsibility for their children?
  • Will the ability to geo-stamp certain entries, through a supporting App on a smartphone, do away once and for all with the destructive allegation and counter-allegation that one parent has failed to turn up at the agreed time and location to have or to allow contact with their child?  I have seen the courts struggle with these cases where a decision has to be made as to who is telling the truth about specific incidents.   The court’s decision, a finding of fact, can impact directly on the ultimate decision as to which parent should have care of the children or how much contact there should be for a so-called absent parent.
  • Does the concept of the ‘absent parent’ lose definition and meaning in a virtual world where the channels of communication are in real-time and ‘always on’?
  • Most intriguingly, will the English courts, like their North American counterparts, embrace the reality of such online tools and begin to incorporate into their orders, a direction that the parents before the court must subscribe to such an electronic service in the hope that communication will improve but that , if it does not, the un-cooperative and obstructive parent may be found out.

The potential for improving the frequency and I would hope, the quality, of the communications between parents in respect of their children is there.  The STBX will be the person at the other end of the interactive tools in this vision of the future rather than the subject of anger or despair in the forum discussions.  If I am right – that the tropes of social networking are becoming ubiquitous – then the particular patterns of engagement between consumers of such services, even hostile parents, could be constructively channelled for the benefit of their children.

Finally: a freebie

My day job is with Family Law Partners (FLP)  The MyOffspring team have kindly offered my firm 200 free subscriptions for their premium service for 12 months. You do not have to be a client of FLP to use the subscription.  It will be first come, first served.  I will post the online code for the offer as I soon as I receive it.


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Divorce Finance Toolkit

I received an interesting query from a gentleman who is paying periodical payments to his ex-wife following his divorce but has found the downturn in the economy has really impacted upon his ability to sustain the payments.

Tom (not his real name) had come across my blog and then asked:

I was divorced from my wife following 40 years of marriage. I am a ******** working broadly within the commercial/business industry but these days only for a group of small companies directly or indirectly involved in property. Since the valuation of my assets took place pre – recession in late 2006 I have seen an unrelenting reduction in the value of any business interests I still have. I am currently retained on a contract expiring no later than May next year, following which I will be 66 with no realistic chance of securing appropriate work. My ex secured the vast majority of whatever capital wealth I had as well as very substantial maintenance payments in perpetuity on the assumption the economy would continue to grow, which patently it hasn’t!. My gross income will have dimished to the point where I have my state pension & a small private pension all of which is totally swallowed up by the maintenance, rendering me insolvent. I believe I need to secure a discharge of the maintenance order due to changed circumstances by reference to Section 32 of the Matrimonial Causes Act. Do you agree? Suffice to say there are many other liablities which would also weigh in the balance, I believe.

Tom was clearly in a very difficult position.  My response was as follows:

I sympathise with your situation.  The effects of the recession can fall unfairly on one party after a divorce and final order dealing with finances.  Certain capital assets have fallen significantly in value, sometimes just days after the court have made a capital order.  However, recent cases have shown that the court will not revisit the capital element of an order (in effect allowing an appeal out of time) even in extreme examples of capital values falling off a cliff.

I think, from what you say, that your ex-wife has a joint lives maintenance order.  That can be discharged altogether, varied upwards or downwards, or even capitalised to provide a final clean break, under section 31 of the MCA 1973.  You refer to section 32, which provides that enforcement of arrears of maintenance cannot be pursued without the leave of the court.

If your income situation has worsened to the extent that you are really struggling to pay the spousal maintenance then I would consider contacting your ex-wife to explain the difficulties and suggest that you both attend mediation to address the difficulty and hopefully agree a reduced amount of maintenance.  If you are shortly to be reliant upon pension income alone, depressing your income further, it may be appropriate to seek a complete discharge of the maintenance or even to convert to a nominal maintenance order of 5p per annum (it still remains an order that could be varied upwards if your circumstances changed for the better) but you would not effectively pay any maintnenance under a nominal order.

I do not know what your ex-wife’s pension position is and whether you also dealt with a pension split prior to the divorce.  But it sounds as if this will be a straightforward comparison of your income, your ex-wife’s income, including her maintenance, and a discussion as to whether she can reduce the maintenance and adjust to that new level without undue hardship.  The liabilities situation for both of you will be relevant.  The court’s discretion as to the circumstances it can take into account are virtually unfettered and can include, by way of example, an ex-wife’s cohabitation with a new partner.

I take it that there are no deferred lump sum payments by instalments or pension attachment lump sum orders not due to take effect until after your retirement, as otherwise, the court does have power under section 31 to consider a variation of these deferred capital orders as well as the income orders like maintenance.

A variation of maintenance can be very expensive in legal fees for very little benefit so I really would urge you to attempt mediation with your ex-wife.  If she does not agree then you may have to get initial legal advice but then consider applying to court yourself to try to vary the maintenance order.  Just check to see if your income is such that you may be eligible for legal aid.

Otherwise, check your domestic insurance to see if you are covered for legal advice assistance, or covered through the terms of any professional memberships.

I am grateful to Tom for allowing me to publish his query and my reply.  As I pointed out to Tom, my response could not in any way constitute legal advice – he really needed to obtain his own legal guidance.  But, for others who might find themselves in a similar position to Tom, I can only urge that any attempt to vary spousal periodical payments is tacked by a civilised discussion, aided if necessary by the assistance of a mediator. Unless the amount of the spousal periodical payments is very significant, the costs of the legal fees fighting a variation through the courts is very likely to be disproportionate.

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Many people are unsure what type of process would best suit them when considering divorce or separation.  The days of running off to the court to issue a divorce application before your spouse are long gone (well, mostly).  Many clients would prefer to keep the process out of court unless it can be helped and, sometimes, involving the court is the only option.

Terms like ‘mediation’ or ‘collaborative law’ are chucked at prospective clients by lawyers in an information blizzard at a first meeting.

Divorce Finance Toolkit thinks a picture (or a diagram) paints a thousand words and therefore offers the following excellent example from Resolution which can be found here.  It is worthwhile considering each of the options open to you carefully.  Most family lawyers will send you a comprehensive letter following a first consultation which should set out the options for you and perhaps discuss the pros and cons of each model in view of your own particular family circumstances.

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