Divorce is a baptism of fire

People can't understand divorce until they have to go through it, and when they do, it's an absolute baptism of fire. Dante's Inferno. 

Paula Rhone-Adrien. Family Law Barrister. standing in front of a wall
Paula Rhone-Adrien. Family Law Barrister.

Paula Rhone-Adrien. Family Law Barrister.

This interview does not replace professional legal advice.

Divorce is now packaged and sold as straightforward and simple to wrap up all by yourself. The UK recently introduced no-fault divorce, which requires you to simply fill out a form online at the government website. It is true to a certain extent when you are both prepared with the paperwork and the ability to communicate amicably, but as a barrister, I get all the conflict and pain from the people who can't. Each and every person experiencing divorce has unique parameters that determine the battle ahead. 

People can't understand divorce until they have to go through it, and when they do, it's an absolute baptism of fire. Dante's Inferno. 

If you are considering the no-fault or a DIY divorce, you will still need to take responsibility for your division of assets, childcare costs, and more. I recommend you are organised by creating a detailed checklist. Please check everything before signing and run it by an Independent Legal Adviser and a Financial Adviser ensuring you fully understand what you are signing. Once these documents are signed, it is very hard to reconsider or renegotiate the terms.

Some obvious points to consider are:

1) Savings -do you have separate or joint bank accounts? What money has accumulated throughout the marriage?

2) Pensions- are considered marital assets and are not always easy to split. 

3) Assets- usually the home, but there can be other investments. Check you can afford the mortgage and upkeep of the home.

4) Children- they are undoubtedly affected by their parent's separation. When considering their wellbeing visit sites such as www.cafcass.gov.uk which offers practical advice in line with the approach of the Family Court. Where assets are to be divided, the Court will expect, where the assets permit, a home to be provided for the child(ren) and the primary carer. This can be complicated where the parents do not agree who is the primary carer. Once again, obtaining independent legal advice on this point helps you understand how the Family Court is likely to approach your circumstances. 

I cannot express how invaluable an Independent Financial Advisor is before employing the services of a lawyer or a barrister. They are worth their weight in gold and will save you significant sums of money. Women need extra support in understanding finances and what their life will look like post-divorce. For example, the cost of running a household with children. Women haven't been encouraged to care about their finances, especially those in a long-term marriage, say 25 years or more and we find that they will often agree to a settlement that isn't in their best interest, only becoming aware of this at a later date when changes can't be made. 

Are there obvious patterns in your client's cases? Have you seen it all after so many years in court?

Paula laughs. I want to say I have seen it all, but I haven't. A majority of my clients have had the same foundation principles but with their unique features. Occasionally, I will get an unfortunate case of extreme opposites. It's hard for the people in this situation to accept they fall into the unfortunate side. Sometimes there will be a lack of evidence- I know s/he has a Ferrari, but there is no documentation of ownership, no petrol receipts, or a service charge that suggests it's his/hers. I have to look through everything like a detective to find indicators but some people excel at hiding wealth. When this happens we have to get private investigators involved. It can be exceptionally difficult for a client to accept we don't have the evidence to present to the Judge.  

Do you have an instinct for this type of case? How do you help your client who is being screwed over?

For example, if I am representing the wife of 25 years, I will inform her that based on the lack of evidence the settlement on the table is probably the best outcome. The window of opportunity may not feel like that to my client and they may want a second opinion, which I absolutely encourage. I appreciate it's another expense, but a client needs to be sure. It's important to trust the advice of your legal team. The wife could tell me after I advise her that she still wants to go to the final hearing, and I will continue to represent her knowing the costs will be significant. Often, the Judge will make stinging remarks about her not listening to her legal team's advice and how she presents herself. It's painful to watch.

Paula, I am not hearing great things about Judges in divorce cases. I heard it's luck of the draw, and you don't know who you are going to get or what mood they will be in. Is this true?

All of the above. Judges are human beings and we don't know what state of mind a Judge is going to be in on the day, they bring their own subconscious biases to work. (even though they are not supposed to)

I call this litigation risk or who the hell knows who you are going to get on the day and this is a reality.

That's why I focus on mediation, negotiation, and settling before going to court. When you have the opportunity to settle, settle. Nobody walks away happy, but the cost of going to court is thousands and depletes the marital pot significantly. 

There are cases where I won't have a choice, my client will be forced to fight in court against an ex that is out to hurt them or who is just unreasonable. My job is to make their process as painless as possible. When I have a client who is deeply hurting I check they are getting counselling, have someone to talk to, or have a support network. Where finances allow, I highly recommend using a divorce coach. They are also significantly cheaper than using your solicitor as support. If you can't afford a therapist or a divorce coach, there are charities out there that offer support or contact your GP. 

One of the issues that arises from the hurting client is their decision-making is emotional rather than practical. When we present the evidence to a Judge, the Judge has to read the documents impartially and dismiss the emotions of the people in front of them. Judges 'don't care' if your kids aren't talking to you or if you are hurting, and it always comes as a huge shock to this kind of client. Of course they care, but your emotions cannot sway their conclusion based on facts. 

If the evidence doesn't stack up, it doesn't stack up. 

How does this affect you, especially as you are independent?

9 out of 10 clients will meet me for the first time in court, and I will continue to represent them for the duration, usually 12-18 months. The UK has a two-professional system that maintains a buffer between myself and the client. My job as a barrister is to go to court every day and to be an expert in my particular area of law. I will read the reams of paperwork about the case, analyse and critique everything, request more information from the solicitor and then prepare everything to present in court. It is imperative that I am not emotionally invested or swayed by them being a good person or unfairly treated. Solicitors, on the other hand, will have continuous contact with their clients, the day-to-day management and support throughout the process. Solicitors will often have 40-50 clients, I don't. 

I couldn't hide my shock. Meeting someone who is going to represent you for the first time in an emotionally charged and vulnerable situation helped me understand why barristers have a bad name. It also makes sense why they charge a lot for their service

Are any clients she has had to stop working with?

Not one. I have people who like to fight, and who won't settle no matter what. It could be 99% and they will want 100%. I have had to learn the psychology of conflict quickly- and no, it isn't a course offered to students. The hardest clients for me are the ones I worry about. Thankfully, this two-professional system protects me from this, but I still have to sit them down and tell them the hard truth.

Is there anything you would specifically like to see change?

The process has to become more accessible. Since the Legal Aid cuts, there has been a massive drop in the opportunity for people to access proper legal advice and justice. An example is domestic abuse, where the abused have to settle because they don't have the resources to push through and win. Pro bono exists but the amount that can be offered is limited. Our court system is failing not because of the people but because of the infrastructure and lack of administrative staff. The once-great British legal system is crumbling and is in dire need of funding. 

Is there anything important you think people should do?

From the day you know you want to divorce, start preparing by understanding your finances. Think what your life will look like post-divorce. Use an Independent Financial Advisor- they help you understand your reality and options. You can contact your high street bank, they used to provide that service. 

If you are a low-income household or on benefits, find out how your benefits are impacted by separation. Nobody will give you this information, it's for you to learn.

You have to be prepared.

Whether you split £1 or £1m, your life is still going to change when you divorce. 

Paula has practiced family law for over 23 years and remains passionate about helping her clients avoid court through conflict negotiation and mediation. 

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If you would like to share your story or you are a professional who wants to share some insights, please email me at contact@angryexwife.com