CFLP is committed to offering clients a range of processes to help them work out arrangements for the family after separation, divorce or civil partnership dissolution. Like most family law firms, the bulk of our work is negotiation and litigation, and our strong mediation practice is growing steadily. One area of our service that we’re particularly passionate about is promoting the use of collaborative law where circumstances are appropriate; but like other firms, we’re finding recently that clients are more reluctant than they used to be to investigate this avenue.
For those who aren’t aware, collaborative family law is a different way of working towards family solutions when adult relationships break down. It involves a series of “round table” meetings where both parties and their respective solicitors meet in the same room to investigate finding a fair way forward in the family’s particular unique circumstances. Financial, property and children matters can be approached holistically, and third (or rather, fifth) parties can be brought in to assist where necessary with financial advice, valuations or parenting matters. The key difference with negotiations in the shadow of the court is that in collaborative law, both clients and their solicitors sign an agreement at the beginning of the process which commits them to keeping the discussions confidential – enabling everyone to put their cards on the table in the interests of finding a fair solution – and to settling the dispute without going to court. If the collaborative process is not successful, the parties must instruct new lawyers to litigate the outstanding issues, meaning that there is huge buy-in from the collaborative lawyers towards making the process work, as they do not want to lose a client. You can find more detailed information about collaborative law as we do it at CFLP here.
Cambridge was one of the first places in England to take up the ideas of the collaborative law movement from its origins in the USA, and CFLP lawyers were some of the first to use its principles. We’re some of the most experienced collaborative practitioners around, but even we are finding collaborative law difficult to make attractive to clients in these tricky economic times. We sense that this is partly the time involved in collaborative law: it is quite a time commitment to attend a series of half-day conferences, and when employment or business circumstances are precarious and childcare is expensive, this may not be a commitment everyone can make. There may also be a cost issue: although collaborative law is generally much less expensive than a contested court case about financial matters, the cost of each meeting can seem like a large amount because of the solicitor’s time involved. However, because solicitors’ correspondence is kept to a minimum and there are no court costs, fees are much more certain and predictable in collaborative law. Decisions about how to cover the costs of the process tend to be made together at an early stage so there are no surprises later. In terms of time, some people find that collaborative law makes it easier to compartmentalise their divorce and stop it from infiltrating their thoughts each day, as they know when meetings are going to be and can prepare for them when they wish, without the fear of too many letters arriving on the doormat in between: collaborative law works for people who would prefer to deal with things in chunks of time, rather than little-by-little over a period of weeks or months.
As many relationships are coming under huge pressure because of money worries, we are seeing more high-conflict clients and wonder if the idea of a non-adversarial process may be less attractive to those who feel they need a lawyer “in their corner”. It’s a tricky concept to explain, but being non-positional doesn’t mean that the lawyer is not “on your side”, it simply works in a different way when everyone is pushing as a team to find the solution that best fulfills everyone’s needs. Collaborative lawyers are trained in balancing power and creating a level playing field, meaning clients feel less exposed than they might otherwise. It is true that collaborative law requires give and take on both sides, and the idea of compromise can be a difficult one to come to terms with when the end of a relationship brings with it so much fear. The idea of a court case where there is a “winner” and a “loser” is comfortingly familiar, so it can understandably take a lot to open frightened minds to the opportunities of a different approach, even where the creativity that collaborative working makes possible can lead to a more flexible, suitable outcome than the strict constraints of the court process.
We’ve written before about how useful we think collaborative law can be in cases where there is a family business, but collaborative law offers the chance for better solutions for a wide range of people, even where the two clients involved are finding it difficult to communicate without anger. Trained and experienced collaborative practitioners like those at CFLP are used to and unafraid of conflict, and know how to work with prevailing circumstances to encourage clients to reach solutions that will enable them to face the future with dignity, and without fear of what tomorrow will bring. Most importantly, children facing change in their family unit can benefit massively from the improved communication that usually comes from working collaboratively, in ways that clients rarely expect at the beginning of the process. We still strongly believe in collaborative law in the right circumstances. Give us a call if you’d like to know more – you could also have a look at the Cambridge Family Dispute Resolution Group site.