Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills are the latest celebrity couple to find out the hard way that divorce often ends in a long, acrimonious and expensive court battle. But many costly annulments could be avoided if alternative and less hostile means of separation were explored first, new research suggests.
Thousands of couples end a relationship in the same way as the McCartneys because their lawyers fail to advise them about cheaper, alternative solutions to tackling family breakdown, according to the government spending watchdog the National Audit Office.
Sir Paul says his experience of seeking a divorce - which has included mediation - is like "going through hell". In an interview with Radio Times, published today, the former Beatle, 65, adds: "As Winston Churchill once said, 'If you are going through hell, keep going!' The only solution is to remain dignified. If I don't keep a silence about it, I lose this idea of being dignified."
The NAO's research implies that solicitors are costing the public purse up to £10m a year by putting profits before their clients' interests. Under the legal aid system, solicitors can expect to be paid much more in fees if their case is settled in court. In a third of cases examined by the NAO, lawyers had failed even to suggest that a client seeking a divorce or separation should first consider mediation as alternative to court. The Legal Services Commission (LSC), which authorises legal aid payments, spends about £300m a year helping those who qualify for state funding to deal with a family breakdown.
Last night, one Conservative MP claimed the NAO report proved that some lawyers were cashing in by "keeping quiet". Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, urged the commission to ensure more couples considering divorce were directed towards a family counsellor. "Mediation is often a swifter and less acrimonious path, and it is cheaper," said the MP for Gainsborough. "It is important to avoid courtroom confrontations as far as possible, even if some avaricious lawyers are more than happy to cash in by keeping quiet about the mediation alternative."
Most couples going through a relationship breakdown and who visited a solicitor would not necessarily be familiar with the mediator's role, the NAO report said. But many solicitors were also qualified mediators or at least would be aware of the role of mediation, it added. Mr Leigh urged the LSC, a public body funded by the Ministry of Justice, to encourage solicitors to refer more clients to mediation. Moves automatically to screen a couple's suitability for counselling and a new fixed-fee system for lawyers were not enough on their own to steer people away from divorce, he added. "These ideas are welcome but will not get far unless the LSC's management information systems are improved radically," he said.
Of the 149,000 couples seeking a divorce with legal aid backing between October 2004 and March 2006, only 29,000 had tried mediation, the NAO found. About 120,000 went through court proceedings or bilateral negotiations through solicitors but, in a third of cases, mediation was never discussed.
On average, the cost of legal aid in a mediated divorce case is £752 - less than half the £1,682 spent on a similar case in which no mediation takes place. That extra expenditure represents a cost to the taxpayer of £74m a year, the NAO said. It estimated that if 14 per cent more cases went to mediation, about £10m a year could be saved from the legal aid budget. The LSC has proposed introducing a fixed legal aid fee to replace the current hourly rate, and a requirement for clients to consult a mediator before becoming eligible for further legal aid payments.
Jane McCulloch, the leader of Resolution, a professional body for family solicitors, insisted its members were "dedicated" to keeping couples out of court.
Couples at war
Chris and Ingrid Tarrant
The television and radio presenter was described by his wife Ingrid as a "clumsy, naïve lover" who often came to bed smelling of fish and suffering from impotence
Sir Paul McCartneyand Heather Mills
Their divorce reached a low point last year when a leaked document detailed allegations by Ms Mills about the former Beatle's behaviour. She claimed he changed the locks at the marital home in East Sussex, froze her bank account and removed £10m of paintings from her seafront home in Hove
Robin and Margaret Cook
The Foreign Secretary told his wife their marriage was over hours before a newspaper exposed his affair with his secretary. Mrs Cook later alleged that her husband was a drunkard who altered his views to suit his political needs
Sir Peter and Lady Sarah Moon
When Lady Moon discovered her husband's philandering in 1992, she made him pay by cutting one sleeve off each of his 32 Savile Row suits, then pouring white paint over his BMW. The car was parked in his mistress's driveway at the time