Getting divorced? How to do it for less money than you think

Getting divorced can be expensive, especially if you’ve been married for a long time and have a lot of joint assets. Lucy Handley finds out how you can keep the cost of solicitors down

Getting divorced is a sad fact of life, and the cost of doing so is rising. If you add all the incidental and often necessary costs, such as post-separation holidays or self-esteem-boosting personal makeovers, the average couple now spends £44,000 during a divorce (up from £28,000 in 2006).

But there are ways to make the divorce process cheaper. DIY services are on the rise, and there’s been an increase in people representing themselves in court as ‘public access’ is now permitted. This means you can instruct a barrister directly without having to involve an intermediary solicitor, and the saving could be as much as 50 per cent.

If you can agree with your former partner the reason you are giving for the divorce, how you’ll look after your children and how you’ll split your assets, you may be able to arrange it yourself, without a solicitor.

Simon Sugar, a barrister at family law chambers 1 Garden Court, says: “My experience is that if you engage a barrister from the beginning of your dispute your total costs will be about a third or a half of what they would be if you engaged both a barrister and a solicitor.”

DIY divorce

“I could have done a lot of the box ticking and filling in lengthy financial declaration forms for court without a lawyer and just used a barrister instead for strategic direction and representation in Court itself,” says Jasmine*, a recently divorced Londoner.

If you do go direct, expect to do a lot of the administration yourself.

“Every case is different,” says Sugar. “It boils down to whether the person working directly with the barrister can do lots of the legwork themselves.

“You will need all your bank statements, a redemption figure [the remaining cost] for the mortgage and get someone round to value the house. The barrister would have to be confident that person could do it.”

He refers to the benefits of going straight to a barrister as a ‘holy trinity’: reduction in length, cost and stress. “All family disputes are emotional, and if you go to a barrister directly you will have the main issues identified at the start,” he says.

Divorce mediation

A mediator can help you agree how you split your assets such as savings, pensions or property, without the need to instruct a solicitor to negotiate a deal.

If you don’t agree a settlement this way then you will at least have a clearer idea to give to a lawyer about what to expect from your ex, says the Legal Ombudsman.

Ewan Malcolm has worked in mediation for 15 years and is the chief executive of Relate London North West. He says: “Very seldom are people happy when they come to mediation because it’s a deeply unhappy time.

“But usually they come out of it with a compromise that they can both live with. If anybody is stuck with a decision about the consequences of a separation, mediation can help.”

The first session involves the couple sitting down with a mediator for an hour or so, where they each get the chance to explain what they want to sort out.

“It allows each person to have a bit of uninterrupted time to say what it is they want to resolve,” says Malcolm. “That is often the first time for some time that people have had to say that.

“Often by the time they get to this stage [of deciding to separate], people just shout at each other and don’t listen. So having a mediator listen and repeat back to make sure they have understood is often quite an important part,” says Malcolm.

Ground rules are set out at the start, where everyone agrees how the meetings will run, and that they will be confidential. Mediators are not permitted to be called as witnesses, should the case go to court.

Working out what you want through mediation can be much more cost-effective than instructing a solicitor to do so, Malcolm says, having practised law for 20 years before becoming a mediator.

“It is perfectly valid [to go to a solicitor] particularly if people need distance between themselves and their partner,” he says.

“But in the majority of cases, particularly where people are cost-conscious and have a modicum of willingness to co-operate, it is much better to do so face-to-face.”

When and how to instruct a solicitor

Each case is different, but those that are more complicated, involving children for example, are likely to need the advice of a lawyer. It is best to tell your lawyer what you want from the separation and to be specific.

The more complex a case becomes, the higher the legal fees. If it is possible for both partners to agree what they want to get out of the separation in advance (perhaps through mediation), the less money each person will need to spend on lawyers.

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Don’t use your lawyer as a sounding board. Talk to a good friend and vent frustration about the situation that way

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Always check what estimated costs include, such as VAT and what are known as ‘disbursements’, or fees that solicitors pay to others including court costs. Agree with your lawyer exactly how they will keep you updated about their costs throughout the process.

Keeping legal fees down

Jasmine advises avoiding lengthy calls with lawyers and to avoid becoming emotional, if possible, as it takes up their time. “Correspond by email whenever possible and keep to the point on the telephone.

“There is a tendency, particularly in the early stages when acrimony can run high between you and your spouse, to see the lawyer as a sounding board. But is would be better to talk to a good friend and vent frustration about the situation that way.”

She also advises getting documents emailed to you in Word format so you can track changes and send them back. Some lawyers will send files as a PDF, then phone you for your comments so that they can make the changes themselves and send it back to you, all adding to their fee.

“When I addressed this issue with my lawyer a few months in, the documents then came in Word format and a lot of time and money was saved,” she says.

Try to settle before a final court hearing

Jasmine sent her former husband a letter clearly outlining how much worse off they would each be if they ended up fighting each other in court.

“It can cost a couple at least £100,000 if you do go to court. I told him the money would be better spent on something positive like our children’s future and education.”

Useful links

The Bar Council has a directory of public access barristers (who can be instructed without a solicitor)

Gov.uk has all the relevant forms that need completing

The Family Mediation Council explains the process and lists local mediators

Relate offers one-hour mediation sessions for around £85 a person

*Not her real names