“Marriage is really tough because you have to deal with feelings… and lawyers.” – Richard Pryor
All family lawyers know that people come to us during one of the most stressful periods of their lives. Whether they are separating, divorcing or struggling to agree arrangements for their children our clients are inevitably worried about the future; they are often sad and frightened. It is important that people in this position pick the right lawyer who will understand their particular needs and who can give them specialized legal and emotional support. Our clients have to feel comfortable sharing their private thoughts and feelings with us, and they have to trust us to achieve a good outcome and to respect their privacy in a small community. We help them see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. As if that wasn’t enough, parties to family disputes have to deal with the financial consequences of their situation. If they are divorcing, they have to trust their lawyer to help them navigate the sometimes complex rules relating to the division of assets and income, and the outcome will not always seem fair. If they are trying to resolve arrangements for children, they may have to make difficult concessions. Feelings will run high. And then they have to worry about the legal costs which will inevitably drain the family finances. Unfortunately, legal fees in family cases can easily spin out of control. So, what can lawyers and clients do to keep costs down?
“A lawsuit is a fruit tree planted in a lawyer’s garden.” – Italian Proverb
Most family lawyers in Jersey still charge on a time spent basis, and family disputes are time consuming and can be unpredictable. Be prepared to ask about fixed fees and payment plans. A good lawyer will always be happy to hold an open discussion about their approach to billing. They should avoid duplicating fees if more than one lawyer is working on your case, and their fees should be reasonable for the job that they have been asked to do.
In the UK, the Legal Ombudsman advises members of the public to raise ten points when using legal services, pointing out that lawyers should provide clear information about costs:
- Will I be charged for a consultation?
- How do you cost your service?
- Can you tell me more about the way you charge?
- What is a fixed fee and what will it cover?
- You charge an hourly rate but I’d like an estimate of the cost of the whole service. What will my final bill look like?
- Could my costs change? How will you let me know if they do?
- Are there any extra costs?
- Can I get help with the cost?
- When will I be billed and how long will I have to pay? Do you offer payment options?
- What happens if I disagree with the amount I’ve been charged?
In Jersey many of these questions should be addressed in the engagement letter sent to the client, but don’t be afraid to ask these questions during the first meeting or telephone call.
“Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shovelling smoke.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
In family disputes, a lot of time and money can be spent writing, and responding to, bad tempered correspondence between opposing lawyers. There is an obvious temptation to try to gain the moral high ground when, in reality, it will rarely affect the outcome of a case. Try to avoid it.
“Avoid lawsuits beyond all things; they pervert your conscience, impair your health, and dissipate your property.” – Jean de la Bruyere, French Philosopher & Essayist
Court cases cannot always be avoided, but where family disputes have to come before a judge the proceedings should be dealt with effectively, efficiently and respectfully. The Court will do its best to help parties manage the litigation, but clients should always have a clear plan of action when embarking on litigation. Understand that family law is highly discretionary and that there is no guarantee of success.
“A lean compromise is better than a fat lawsuit.” – George Herbert, Poet
Your lawyer should always set out all of your options and be able to explain the up side and down side of each of them. Legal costs should be proportionate to the case, and all clients should be encouraged to find a compromise if possible. This is particularly true in family financial disputes. A family lawyer should be happy to guide clients through the process of settlement, using mediation or other dispute resolution tools where appropriate. Be under no illusions, family litigation can be expensive and harmful to future relationships between parents. It can also take its toll on children.
“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbour to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough” – Abraham Lincoln
Make sure that you and your lawyer work in partnership. Teamwork should help to ensure that you achieve an outcome to your case as quickly as possible and without breaking the bank.
Claire Davies, Advocate