Wednesday 26 July 2017

Separating couples: I won't see you in court!

As the financial and emotional cost of marriage breakdown spirals, separating couples are embracing a new legal option, where they happily say . . .

Separating couples are embracing a new legal option to settle out of court.
Separating couples are embracing a new legal option to settle out of court.

Siobhan Cronin

Separation or divorce is a frightening enough experience without having to contend with the daunting prospect of entering an austere courthouse or addressing a judge.

Then there's the cost. An Irish divorce will cost you anything from €5,000 to €20,000 in the Circuit Court, and this figure could top €60,000 or €70,000 in just a few days if it ends up before a High Court judge.

The incidence of divorce jumped a whopping 70pc from 35,000 to 59,500, between 2002 and 2006. But it may well be slowing down a bit now, due to the recession.

With such huge drops in property prices, it's no wonder that many people are opting to 'stick it out'. As a result, many people are doing untold damage to themselves by feeling they have no option but to stay in a bad relationship.

But now Irish couples who have decided that their relationship has irretrievably broken down have a new option: collaborative law.

The concept, which is now two decades old in America, is beginning to garner huge support in Ireland and there are now over 600 Irish lawyers trained in the concept.

The premise is that couples bring their fears and concerns to a roundtable discussion, each with their own lawyer present, and discuss their options with a view to arriving at agreement before the case comes to court.

When a deal has been reached, the lawyers can go to the court to get the final seal of approval from the judge, so in many cases the applicants never have to enter the courthouse at all.

"It's a concept whose time has come," says Naas-based solicitor Eoin O'Connor, who is at pains to point out that it is not a 'quick fix' or a 'recession divorce', but in most cases, the process takes a lot less time, and so costs don't mount up quite so much.

Eoin recalls one recent case which took just two five-hour meetings between both parties to hammer out the agreement.

Although the process took 10 hours in total, and was eventually signed at 10.30pm on a Friday night, it was agreed in a matter of weeks rather than months -- the latter being the norm if the parties decide to opt for the adversarial system, via the courts.

"It's not for everyone," says solicitor Helen Coughlan from Newbridge, who is also part of the Collaborative Family Law group operating in Kildare and West Wicklow, which is being launched today by President of the Law Reform Commission, Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness.

"Sometimes you will meet someone who is just determined to have their day in court, and you will know immediately that collaborative law is not for them. But when people realise it doesn't have to be knives at dawn, it might be the option for them."

The process, which was started by American lawyer Stu Webb in 1990, came about because Webb felt there had to be a better way to sort out relationship breakdown than the current judicial system, which is intimidating for most people.

The concept was then picked up by a group of lawyers in Cork, and now solicitors throughout the country are recognising the demand for this civilised way of sorting out the messy business of separation and divorce.

The solicitors behind the concept are very keen to ensure that the process retains its integrity at all times, and that it represents a beneficial alternative for couples in trouble.

The non-confrontational element of the process is obvious, even down to the setting for meetings. It's all about creating the best possible atmosphere for resolving disputes, says Helen.

"The round table is essential to the discussion. There are no corners here, and everyone is treated equally," agrees Eoin, speaking from his specially designed office in Naas.

"I have no legal books in here, no phone, no computer, to make sure everyone is at ease from the minute they come in, and that there are no distractions."

Both lawyers admit that they get great personal and job satisfaction from seeing couples leaving the meeting without that bitterness and fear that is so often present after court dates.

"Both solicitors also have to trust each other," says Helen Coughlan. "You will of course represent your own client, but you will look at the whole situation too."

She points out that while 99pc of settlements are reached on the 'court steps', the relationship's problems don't end there. With collaborative law, everyone gets to voice their own fears and opinions.

The lawyers are also battling against the concept of divorce being seen as a financial black hole, due to the costs of cases.

Some break-ups are so antagonistic that they find their way to the High Court, which can involve crippling costs.

"We are not saying that collaborative law is a cheap option, but it usually takes weeks rather than months or years, and therefore it represents very good value for money," says Eoin.

"If the collaborative process fails, we cannot then take that same case into court, so there is a huge incentive on the solicitor to come to an agreement," Helen points out.

Where there are children or huge financial commitments involved, the solicitors can also advise on getting the assistance of subsidiary services, like counselling or accountancy services.

"There is huge potential for this type of law," Eoin says, but admits that so far the process hasn't extended beyond relationship breakdown, but he can see its use in settling all sorts of disputes, from arguments over land to business difficulties.

For now, the Irish lawyers are happy to concentrate on drumming up support for the use of collaborative law within relationship disputes.

"I have no doubt this idea will grow and grow," says Eoin.

To find out more about the process, or to locate a solicitor in your area trained in Collaborative Law, go to www.acp.ie, the website of the Association of Collaborative Practitioners in Ireland.

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