The legal Ombudsman recently reported that almost 18% of all complaints related to family law are principally about legal costs. One client had been charged £4,000 for photocopying; another £15,000 for additional costs.
Family lawyers reacted defensively to the report with many blogs, comments and interviews, yet it is difficult to understand how such appalling examples of client care can be rationally defended.
It is true that family law is often a crisis purchase made in a time of emotional distress and that many clients have unrealistic expectations of what is achievable. Many clients evaluate the service given to them by an outcome which may never have been realistically achievable. A change in the law to remove the fault driven divorce process, greater legislative clarity with regards to financial proceedings and clients being better signposted, would all be welcomed by those practising family law and would no doubt be equally well received by clients.
For the time being, the existing law and procedures remain. If anything, now that legal aid for family matters has become generally unavailable, save for family mediation, the frustrations experienced by clients and those practising within the system, will become exacerbated. Many commentators describe the forthcoming changes as a “perfect storm”.
Generally, family solicitors provide a good service and know their way around the court system. They know what is relevant in law to achieving the best outcome for you. This may not be the same thing as what you feel is relevant but they guide you through what is, and what is not achievable, and how to keep legal costs to a reasonable level. Those charging £4,000 for photocopying and £15,000 for additional costs are in the minority.
The following are 10 tips to ensure that your legal costs don’t spiral out of control.
- Check if the firm of solicitors is Lexcel accredited. This means the practice has been regularly assessed by the Law Society as having good practice management standards, well trained staff and good client care.
- Find out if your family solicitor is a member of Resolution. Resolution solicitors conduct cases in a way which is non-confrontational, lessens acrimony, is child focused and preserves dignity. They will not conduct your case in a way which maximises legal costs for them.
- Ask if your family solicitor is accredited as a specialist in family law by the Law Society or Resolution. This means that they have passed examinations in family law at a specialist level, and have a prescribed level of experience in conducting family cases.
- Check if the firm offers a range of funding options. Will they accept payment by instalments (interest free loan), payment at the end of your case or when your house sells, or do they offer fixed fees? Find out if they are prepared to help you represent yourself or if they can offer you any legal aid for family mediation.
- Ask if the firm offers other family law services such as mediation and collaborative law. You may decide not to use these services, but you should consider them with your solicitor as options. You may be eligible for legal aid for family mediation which is often a far cheaper and quicker process than the Court.
- Make sure you get an estimate of costs and agree a funding package. Ask for regular breakdowns of costs incurred on an hourly basis if you are not being invoiced monthly. If you are invoiced and can’t understand how fees have been incurred, make an appointment to look through your file and discuss it with your solicitor.
- Tell your solicitor if you are on a tight budget. They will use what money you have available for fees wisely giving you the best advice, representation and guidance they can for the money you have. If you wait until you have run out of money, you may end up feeling abandoned at a critical stage of proceedings.
- Try to do as much administration and preparation as you can yourself. To keep the costs down obtaining bank statements, pension statements, surrender values etc. If you instruct your solicitor to collate this information for you, they will charge you at the same rate as they do for giving you legal advice.
- Think before you pick up the phone. It’s easy to call your solicitor when you first separate; they are kind, friendly, supportive and are in control. Your solicitor cannot refuse to take your calls, because if she or he did you could rightfully complain, but they will charge you for their time at the same hourly rate as they do for giving you legal advice. Emotional support offered by family, friends, your doctor, support groups and counsellors will either be free, or at significantly lower cost than your solicitor. If you don’t know where best to turn ask either your solicitor or your GP to signpost where you can access other resources.
- Plan ahead. If you instruct a solicitor on an hourly basis then be aware at all times of the cost of picking up the phone and emailing. For example, if your solicitor charges £200 per hour plus VAT, every letter, email and telephone call will cost you £24. Sometimes it’s far more cost effective to go to the inconvenience of a 30 minute appointment and come armed with a list of questions.
Emsleys family team offer a range of funding options including fixed fees, payment upon the sale of a house or end of your case (subject to eligibility), funding for those who wish to self-represent on a ‘pay as you go’ basis, hourly rates and legally aided family mediation. We can offer you family mediation and will work with you collaboratively signposting other services to you.
Emsleys is Lexcel accredited. All of the solicitors in our team are members of Resolution and have been accredited as specialists in family law by either the Law Society, Resolution or both. We offer a free initial appointment, will give a written estimate of fees, provide monthly statements and provide specialist legal advice and representation.