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Collaborative Divorce: It Works for the Material Girl

Madonna and Guy Ritchie could be the first high-profile couple to divorce collaborative-style.

The new, fast-track and non-confrontational way of reaching arrangements over money and children on divorce has just won senior judicial backing – in the week that the couple’s split became public knowledge.

Collaborative law does not sound buzzy. But it is the in-method of reaching divorce agreements, with the benefits of speed, huge cost savings and, above all, minimum acrimony.

Last week a couple of hundred lawyers gathered to celebrate the fifth year since American-style collaborative law was introduced in the UK. In 2003, four London lawyers were among a handful who had qualified in the new method; now there are more than 1,250 and more than 300 in London. This year has also seen the appointment of London’s first “collaborative” silk: Tim Amos, QC.

What is it? It aims to help couples reach agreement out of court, avoiding the risk of the public mud-slinging and battles epitomised in the split between Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.

Settlements are reached in four-way, face-to-face talks between the parties and their lawyers. There is an incentive to agree: if the talks fail, then new lawyers have to be instructed for court proceedings – at extra cost.

The couple draws up a consent order which is then agreed by the court. This process used to take three to four months. But last week , Mr Justice Coleridge, a senior family judge, announced a fast-track procedure whereby such orders could now be approved within a couple of days.

He said that If every aspect of the case had been agreed, and the hearing before a judge for approving the order would not take longer than ten minutes, all that was needed was a day’s notice to the court and a chance for the judge to read the papers overnight.

The fast-track initiative, which has the backing of Sir Mark Potter, president of the Family Division, comes about after an un-named couple had asked for urgent approval of their settlement because one was about to move to the United States with the children.

At first, Mr Justice Coleridge said that he thought the application rather cheeky. But he added: “However, I am, as is well-known, a pussycat, and agreed to hear the application for approval as the first in the list on the following day.”

The key benefits of the new “good divorce” method are that it is non-adversarial; solutions can be tailormade and flexible; clients have control of the pace; experts (accountants, financial advisers, therapists or counsellors) can be brought in and work with the couples; and privacy is preserved.

He did sound one note of caution, however. Lawyers needed to be “acutely sensitive” to the process failing so that “costs are not run up first by one process and then, after the trial has hit the buffers, by the old-fashioned scheme”.

Isobel Robson, partner and head of family at Andrew Jackson, the Yorkshire law firm, said there was a big take-up in the new method.

“I believe that collaborative law is the most exciting development in family law in my 24 years of practice. Clients love it; they regard the process as direct, clear and amicable whilst avoiding the expenses and latent aggression of the court process.”

Cost savings were considerable too, she said. “I have dealt with collaborative cases with assets in the millions and costs of under £10,000 – perhaps only 10 per cent or less of the costs for contest cases with the same assets.”

The take-up among lawyers is still patchy, however, with some hugely successful pockets in the regions where lawyers have embraced the new method, but a slower take-up in other areas, including London.

“The clients embrace the concept that the whole focus of their case is on settling – rather than fighting,” she said.

Suzanne Kingston, head of family at Dawsons LLP, said that for Madonna and Guy Ritchie, the privacy would be a big incentive. The settlement could be reached “in one of the offices of the solicitors rather than in court”.

So it’s down to Fiona Shackleton (for Madonna) and (Lady) Helen Ward, for Ritchie. The couple are said to want a deal by Christmas. Using this route, they could well do it.

Source: London Times