Terrifying legal costs are keeping many couples trapped in marriages they desperately want to end. But increasing numbers of women are ditching the lawyers – and saving thousands. Sally Williams asks: is this the future of divorce?
On the day of her final divorce hearing, in January this year, Natalie, 46, dressed carefully. Even though it was a virtual hearing because of strict Covid restrictions, she wanted to look smart: a suit blazer, knee-length dress, hair immaculate.
It was a big day: the culmination of a three-year legal fight with her ex which had taken her from Australia to the UK, and across three other hearings. What’s more, despite having no legal expertise whatsoever, it was a divorce Natalie had largely managed herself.
‘I didn’t know what anxiety was before this,’ she says. ‘I do now. I don’t think I’ve slept properly for two years.’
It was a huge task to fit in around being mum to two daughters aged 16 and 12: over 250 hours on paperwork and legal research, often until one or two in the morning. And as someone who had always put herself second to her husband, Natalie had to face his lawyer and hold her own in the adversarial world of the law courts.
‘It’s frightening confronting a legal team when you’re by yourself, have never been in a courtroom in your life, and are very emotionally involved,’ she says.
But she stood her ground and although her ex had offered a 50:50 settlement, she was awarded 75:25. He spent £50,000 on his divorce; she’d spent around £12,000.
‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But my god, it’s empowering. For a man to have an affair, leave his family and then fight his wife into a position where she is financially disadvantaged is something I wasn’t prepared for. I feel extremely proud of what I’ve achieved for myself and my children.’
‘DIY’ divorces – where people seek little or no professional or legal help and represent themselves in court – are on the rise, increasing from 35 per cent to 57 per cent in the past five years, according to a survey by Resolution, the Family Law Reform Group and YouGov.
Doing your own divorce is certainly cheaper than getting the professionals involved. The cost of a divorce solicitor starts from around £700 plus VAT for a fixed-price service; but if the divorce is contested or complicated, the total bill can easily run into thousands. The average divorce cost in the UK is around £14,000, whereas if you chose the DIY route, and it’s a straightforward case, you pay only £550 (for the court fees).
For many, doing it yourself is not a choice. Legal aid for divorce cases was cut in 2013 and now only victims of domestic abuse or violence who can’t afford to pay legal costs qualify. It’s been ‘detrimental to those at the lower end of the financial spectrum’, says Emma Gill, director of divorce and family law at the firm Vardags, who has spent
18 years working with couples. Hardest hit are those with few resources, women like Natalie, who were married to well-off men and lived in elegant homes, but had no money in their own right.
In 2018, a private investigator confirmed Natalie’s husband was having an affair with a colleague. Natalie packed her life into five suitcases, took her daughters, then aged nine and 13, and their dog and flew back to the UK from Australia, where the family had been based since her husband had taken a job in 2012.
When Natalie arrived back in Buckinghamshire, her life was in ruins: the family home was occupied by tenants; she didn’t have a car or a phone. Her husband had cut her off from access to ‘his’ money. ‘He controlled all the finances and I was that stupid wife who never even knew how to sign into online banking. I ran the house, the social diary and the kids, but I never knew how much went into the bank.’
Not long after her return, her husband instructed a British solicitor to start divorce proceedings, offering her a 50:50 settlement. Natalie contacted a solicitor for a free initial consultation. ‘You’ll definitely get more,’ she was told.
In August 2018, she hired the solicitor to do all the paperwork and legal negotiations. But proceedings were slow. Natalie’s husband took a year to file his Form E, a key document in negotiating a settlement as it discloses a person’s financial situation. She was becoming increasingly desperate.
‘I was paying £220 plus VAT per hour to the solicitor. Everything is minuted – if you send or receive an email, you pay for it. I hadn’t even been to court!’ The Form E finally arrived in January 2019. ‘My solicitor could see I’d been cordoned off financially. She said, “If you want to keep the family home rather than end up with legal bills that would force you to sell it, you need to have a rethink.”’
Natalie realised the only way to continue with the divorce was to do it herself. A friend, an HR director, read over documents to check they didn’t ‘sound too emotional’. She was supported by her sister for the first hearing (litigants in person are allowed a ‘McKenzie friend’ to assist them in court); and then by her best friend. She also had advice from Wikivorce, a volunteer-run enterprise which provides divorce and separation support.
Natalie represented herself in three hearings; Wikivorce advised her to hire a barrister for the final one. The barrister cost £7,200 for two days. She raised the money with a bank loan which she has to pay back over five years.
‘I cried silent tears because the judge was so complimentary about how I presented the evidence. To hear that was massive. We’re talking about a husband who basically thought I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t have the high-powered job he had.’ Natalie plans to set up a platform to help other women who find themselves in a similar situation. Tosh Brittan is a divorce life coach who successfully managed her own divorce in 2019. Around 30 per cent of the women in her online group are doing a DIY divorce; many because they can’t afford a lawyer.
At least 90 per cent of the people who approach Nicola Phipps for financial advice at Wikivorce are scared of the cost. ‘I have a number of clients who have done the first part of the divorce, but years later are still legally married because they can’t sort out the finances. Sometimes they’ve gone to see a solicitor for a free half-hour, and they’ve come away with a quote which has scared them and they’re not able to move forward.’
So what do you need to do to become unmarried? One person ‘petitions’ the other for divorce, giving the reason. (‘No fault’ divorce, where couples no longer have to blame each other for the breakdown of the marriage, is to be introduced next April.) You apply to the court online or by post, and if the court agrees, you are granted a decree nisi. All being well, a decree absolute – the legal document which ends the marriage – can be issued just over six weeks later.
Dividing property, savings, pensions, etc is a separate process. Both parties need to agree a financial settlement and this is only legally binding once you’ve applied to the court for a consent order. Deciding on where children will live, how much time they will spend with each parent, and who will pay for what is another hurdle to clear.
Getting divorced is a complex process, full of pitfalls, according to Vanessa Lloyd Platt of the law firm Lloyd Platt & Co. ‘We’ve seen about 20 cases recently where we’ve had to take over from people doing it themselves,’ she says. Mistakes can be simple oversights – ticking the wrong box on one of the forms, for example. ‘Someone gave the grounds for divorce as “irreconcilable differences”– that’s American law, not British,’ says Vanessa. Or issues related to finances. ‘Women have come to us and said, “I panicked and agreed a settlement, and now I can’t afford to pay the bills and am in arrears with the mortgage.”’
But there is help for those who go it alone. Suzy Miller, a divorce strategist and founder of the app Best Way to Divorce, suggests a pick-and-mix approach. For example, use a lawyer for some initial advice; a mediator and financial advisor to help cut a financial deal, and then hire a lawyer to translate the financial agreement into legal language. Wikivorce is also an exponent of this model, providing advice and helping clients gather all the financial information they need for a settlement, say, and then running it by ‘partner solicitors’ for a ‘sense check’ to see whether they think a judge would be happy with it. ‘This isn’t just about saving money,’ says Nicola Phipps. ‘It’s about agency.’
Divorce lawyers are often criticised for over-billing. ‘I don’t benefit financially if somebody has a drawn-out divorce, but a law firm does,’ says Suzy Miller. ‘It’s not the lawyers that ramp it up, it’s the clients!’ counters Vanessa Lloyd Platt. ‘What we always get blamed for is when parties are so embittered and obdurate they are not willing to settle.’ The mistake is using a solicitor like a therapist, warns Nicola Phipps. ‘It’s very expensive therapy when you’re paying £300 an hour.’
Learning to keep your emotions away from negotiations when managing your own divorce is crucial. It’s a skill that Amelia*, 38, thought she’d find impossible to master when she decided to leave her controlling husband, Tom*, 43. For many years, Amelia had felt demeaned by Tom. They have two sons aged 13 and nine. ‘He’d say I was a bad wife and a terrible mother,’ she remembers and – on reflection – thinks she probably agreed with him at the time. ‘I’d suffered from depression after my first child. That turned into a cycle of me not being able to cope.’
Tom’s response to Amelia’s emotional fragility was to have affairs. In July 2019, she caught him sending naked pictures to a woman online. She decided to divorce and to do it herself. ‘The main barrier was being afraid to confront him without being emotionally pushed to a breakdown. Every time I tried to talk to him, he’d use his tactics – shouting, arguing – and I would withdraw.’
The turning point came after she met Ruth Driscoll, who calls herself ‘The Life Liberator’ and coaches women on dealing with controlling partners. ‘You need to understand what his tactics are, how to keep your emotions under control and communicate in a way that helps to move the process forward,’ says Ruth. ‘If it has gone through lawyers and cost a fortune, the relationship is going to be far more inflamed by that point.’ Amelia, who signed up for ten sessions, says she learned how to ignore his tactics.
She’s now in the final stages of managing her own divorce. She’s got Tom to agree a parenting plan. They are even negotiating finances without mediation.
‘Doing my own divorce was an opportunity to seek help, learn to let go of old patterns and be a stronger person,’ she says. ‘I no longer feel I’m not good enough. I’m strong and confident now. I’m free.’
For more information about Natalie’s platform contact email@example.com
Everything you need to know about do-it-yourself divorce
By Nicola Phipps, consultant at Wikivorce
IS IT RIGHT FOR YOU?
Anyone can opt to manage their own divorce, but it’s most suitable if…
- You and your ex-partner agree you both want a divorce and are not looking to fight over the money or children.
- You can agree how to divide assets and property can be divided. Arrange for a consent order to be drawn up and submitted to the court to make your agreement legally binding.
- You can agree child arrangements by creating your own co-parenting plan.
- You are prepared to do your homework – it will save you time and money.
THE PICK-AND-MIX APPROACH
If your situation is more complex – for example, you have a valuable home, pensions and/or complicated finances and children under 18 – it’s still possible to self-manage your divorce by selective use of legal assistance. For example…
- Fill out the divorce forms yourself, but get professional help when it comes to negotiating a financial settlement – this can be mediation (where a mediator facilitates constructive conversation between parties without giving advice) plus the services of a financial expert.
- Get a lawyer to turn your financial agreement into a Consent Order at the end of the process, ideally before the decree absolute is applied for, to ensure that any agreement is legally binding.
- Have at least one safety-check meeting with a specialist family lawyer to help you understand your rights and full implications of any agreements and decisions you make.
FINANCIAL SETTLEMENTS, SIMPLIFIED
- Make sure that you understand what will and will not be considered when a financial settlement is agreed, and that you have a good basic understanding of how a settlement works so you aren’t unrealistic about it.
- All contributions, financial and otherwise, are considered equal. Settlement is based on needs, not who put in the most money.
- Be aware that a 50:50 split is unlikely where children are involved and where one of you earns much less than the other.
- Remember that pensions need to be considered as part of any settlement and a pension share can include the whole fund, not just that which built up during the marriage.
- Whether the matter is simple or more complex, you still need a legally binding order to finally separate your finances. Without one the claim remains open and can come back to bite you.
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
- For more information on divorce, visit gov.uk/divorce; advicenow.org.uk/divorce-and-separation
- For advice about divorcing outside the courts, see resolution.org.uk; divorce-online.co.uk; bestwaytodivorce.co.uk
- Wikivorce (divorce.wikivorce.com) has a forum for free advice, lots of resources to explain the process and offers a range of low-cost services to support people doing a DIY divorce and financial settlement whether in or out of the court process. The helpline is 01202 805020 or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org