DIVORCE: HOW TO KEEP YOUR LEGAL FEES TO A MINIMUM
1. Don't instruct a lawyer!
Straightforward divorce work is hardly rocket science - in many firms much of it is either automated or dealt with by unqualified staff, so any non-lawyer with a modicum of intelligence should be more than capable of doing it themselves. The key here is the word 'straightforward': things may not always be straightforward - if they are not, then just instruct a solicitor to deal with the difficult bits. Even if you have to go to court you can represent yourself (although obviously I wouldn't recommend this in complex matters) - contrary to popular belief, there is no rule that anyone must be represented by a lawyer in court.
Of course, things are more likely to be straightforward if they can be sorted out amicably, which brings me on to my second point:
2. Agree everything!
The following matters will need your attention:
- Who will divorce who, and on what basis - it is amazing how many couples waste their money arguing over this, but it really should not occupy much time. In the vast majority of cases it makes no difference (save to the issue of who pays the costs - but if no solicitors are involved, you'll only be paying the court fees anyway).
- Arrangements for any children - who they will reside with and, if residence is not shared, what contact they will have with the other parent. If you really think about what is best for the children, it should usually be possible to agree these things.
- Sorting out finances - if both parties understand the basic principles (they may need some advice for this - see point 3 below) then it really ought to be possible to reach agreement in most cases. Note that if an agreement is reached, then it will need to be put into a court order, and you will need a solicitor to draw up the order.
- By talking to them directly, if you are able to do so. As indicated above, I would suggest that both parties take at least some basic legal advice before doing this.
- By going through mediation (if your spouse agrees) - this is not for everyone, but can be very effective. Note that any agreement reached in mediation is subject to each party taking advice upon the terms of the agreement.
- Through solicitors, including 'collaborative divorce', if it is available. OK, you will be incurring legal fees, but this is usually still far cheaper than going to court.
Most solicitors offer cheap or even free initial interviews. Take advantage of this! There is no obligation for you to instruct them to deal with your matter, and you can always seek a 'second opinion' from another firm Note, however, that such interviews are usually limited in duration, and the advice is inevitably pretty general.
There are plenty of other sources of advice (see my advice page), many of which are free. Just one word of warning: make sure that the source is reliable - there are plenty of people out there who consider themselves to be legal experts just because they have been through a divorce themselves, but you wouldn't take medical advice from someone just because they had had an operation, would you?
BLATANT PLUG WARNING: Of course, you could always invest in my book, Do Your Own Divorce, which will tell you everything you need to know for most divorces.
4. Limit your solicitor's costs
OK, I realise that you may not be able to agree everything with your spouse, and that you may need to instruct a solicitor. I also realise that the fact that (in most cases) the solicitor's costs will not be fixed is pretty scary, but that does not mean that you have no control.
The solicitor should give you an estimate of their total costs at the outset of the matter, and keep you regularly informed of any change in that estimate. The problem with such estimates is that they can be horribly vague (I have come across such things as "between £500 and £10,000" - quite useless), but there is an answer. Put a (written) limit on your solicitor's costs. That way, they will not be able to charge you more than that limit without your agreement. Once they are nearing the limit they should let you know, and you can decide whether or not they should continue to act for you and, if so, whether you should set another costs limit.