Easing the pain of divorce
A group of Northern Ireland lawyers have taken the lead from America and developed a system to help make dissolving a marriage as stress-free as possible for adults and their children
Divorce is a fact of life for almost a third of all Northern Ireland couples and an average of seven marriages break down here every day.
The last available figures from the NI Statistics and Research Agency show that in 2005 a total of 2,362 partnerships were dissolved.
Financial settlements can be crippling and the personal turmoil and acrimonious accusations often make separation a bitter and hostile battle.
Look no further than Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, who's multi-million pound divorce row has deteriorated into a public mud-slinging match.
But then there are couples like Sadie Frost and Jude Law, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke and Lionel and Diane Richie, who have all worked out amicable splits.
Dragging your emotional baggage through the court system can lead to diminished self-esteem and a further strain on relationships among couples and their kids.
Aware of this disturbing scenario, a group of Northern Ireland lawyers have come up with a groundbreaking alternative to taking the legal route to divorce.
In 2005 they formed the Association of Collaborative Family Lawyers, based on a successful US model.
They now have 60 members and that is set to expand.
The collaborative divorce method is built upon mutual problem solving, where both parties pledge in writing to work towards agreement without going to court. Not only does this avoid significant legal costs, but it also helps families make a more peaceful transition into a new life.
Pauline Knight is chair of the association and outlines how the process works.
"Each client appoints a qualified collaborative solicitor for the purpose of advising, negotiating and assisting in problem solving," she explains.
"Instead of entering into long trails of correspondence and preparation of documents for court, the solicitors will meet their clients to fully explain the process.
"The timing and needs of the couple will be discussed prior to a series of four-way, round table meetings.
"At these sessions, clients and solicitors will examine all the options available to all the parties and come to an agreement tailored to their particular needs and circumstances.
"This not only allows the clients to be fully involved in the process at all times, but it also allows them to explore, examine and analyse their situation.
"Therefore, when an agreement is finally reached, they steadfastly believe that this is the best agreement with their former spouse.
"We would like to see more couples settling their divorce in this way as I think it leads to a more positive and satisfying outcome.
"The collaborative divorce method has become increasingly popular in the US and the practice will undoubtedly become common place in the UK within the next five years.
Pauline says the collaborative law method is also "significantly cheaper " than court proceedings.
Through this process both parties use the same neutral accountant and property valuer which means hefty bills can be split down the middle.
This is not the case when a settlement is pursued through the courts.
Using the collaborative method is also less time consuming, often lasting only a matter of months before being finalised.
Before a couple can take advantage of the process, they must each employ a collaborative law solicitor.
The association is anxious to have as many experienced, senior family lawyers as possible who are proficient in the workings of this method.
And on Thursday and Friday they held their third training session in Belfast.
It was led by pioneering US collaborative law expert, Pauline Tesler, who has trained lawyers in North America, the UK, Ireland and Europe.
And she believes it's the most powerful and creative conflict resolution approach we have ever seen in the area of family law.
"It addresses the complex human needs of divorcing couples far more effectively than decisions given by even the best judges," she explains.
"It encourages the divorcing couple to take personal responsibility for making the decisions they and their children will live with, long after the legal professionals have closed their files and moved on."
› For further information contact Pauline Knight on 028 90509666, Judith Brown on 028 90459687, John Reavey on 028 90860335 or Eileen Ewing on 028 90 595551. You can also visit www.afriendlydivorce.co.uk.
Working towards a fair compromise
Four weeks after Jane (not her real name) and her husband decided to go their separate ways she contacted a collaborative divorce lawyer.
The professional Co Antrim mum, who's in her 30s and was married for 10 years, tells Sunday Life what the process meant for her and her young son who's approaching primary school age.
Why did you decide to use the collaborative divorce method?
The main reason I chose the collaborative method was for the benefit to our son; to retain dignity and minimise the impact of the separation on our child. I felt that using this method would be less acrimonious, as it would avoid the court process and give my ex-husband and I the opportunity to meet face to face and talk about issues directly, rather than using protracted correspondence which can often lead to misunderstand- ing and animosity. I also felt that using this method would be a quicker route than going through the court and would be much less expensive.
What did you benefit from going through this process, as opposed to taking the traditional route to court?
Firstly, all of the meetings were conducted in a very dignified but yet more informal way than the court process which removed much tension and anxiety. There were many issues that could be discussed in one session and therefore the process was much quicker and ultimately less expensive. There were also issues that could be resolved there and then and which would not necessarily have been considered by the court. For example, more flexible contact arrangements for our child and arrangements that would make day-to-day living for all parties much easier. It was extremely useful to be able to consult directly with my solicitor as we went along and it was also useful that both parties' solicitors were able to make constructive suggestions.
Were there any pitfalls or drawbacks?
Initially, it was daunting meeting together with both solicitors and my ex-husband, as I was unsure of what to expect and how my ex-husband would react to sorting out financial issues. However, after the first session my fears were allayed and both solicitors acted in a very supportive capacity.
How long did the whole process last and did it involve many meetings with your solicitor?
It lasted approximately five months, during which time there were four meetings, each lasting two hours.
Do you think the parting was more amicable than if it had been settled in court?
Yes, definitely more amicable and it actually helped reinstate a more civilised and positive relationship between myself and my ex-husband.
Would you advise others to use this system and why?
Yes, particularly because it maintains dignity and protects the child or children involved. This process reduced my stress levels and gave me the ability to prioritise the needs of my child. The method was extremely rapid and therefore less expensive. This process is also less formal than the court process and many issues were resolved which perhaps might not have been through the court. It was also useful to be together in one room, working towards a fair compromise with the advice and guidance from both solicitors.