When relationships break down, the emotional toll can be immense for both parties. At such a difficult time, entering into adversarial legal action can not only add to the stress and shock of the situation, there is also a real risk of long-term animosity being incurred between the parties – which can cause considerable distress for all concerned, especially children. Collaborative law is an alternative family law process which offers an effective way of handling family disputes, often with considerable advantages over seeking Court intervention.
The main principles of the collaborative law approach
Central to the collaborative law process is the belief that rather than engaging in lengthy and protracted letter writing between your respective solicitors as a way of coming to an agreement on the way forward, faster and more effective outcomes are achieved in face-to-face meetings involving all four individuals (both parties, and their Solicitors). Such meetings are designed to encourage openness, transparency, and good faith on both sides. In some situations, additional representatives may join the group who are also trained in the collaborative method (e.g. a neutral financial specialist).
The process is started by the drawing up and entering into of a collaborative participation agreement, which sets out who will be involved, how the process will be run, and a joint commitment (outlining how each party should treat each other when resolving issues), among other key agreements.
The key ingredients of effective collaboration
While collaboration is truly effective in the resolution of family law disputes, it is not for everyone or suitable for every situation. To work in the way it is intended, it is important that both parties:
- Understand the possible options to them including alternative dispute resolution methods and litigation, and choose the collaborative process themselves by making a free and informed decision
- Commit to keeping an open mind when engaging in the process
- Focus on not only their rights but also the family’s best interests
- Are open to divorcing respectfully, with dignity, and maintaining a good relationship in the long-term
- Demonstrate some goodwill to each other
- Know it is a client-driven process, and they must play a part in it
- Understand the holistic nature of the collaborative process
What is the role of the Solicitor in the collaborative process?
Solicitors trained in the collaborative method understand how to work with their clients to achieve the best results. In addition to providing legal advice on their position, much of the Solicitor’s role is helping their client prepare for the collaborative meeting, set their expectations, coach them in ways of handling the sessions, and assisting with negotiation (much of which the parties themselves are encouraged to do).
The collaborative process
The collaborative process follows several steps from the outset to completion, which may entail an agreed resolution or just an agreement to end the process.
The main stages of collaboration are:
- Initial screening – initial contact with the client to understand the context of the dispute and to determine if the collaborative law process is appropriate. The high-level approach is explained to the client to enable them to make an informed decision if they wish to proceed.
- Details of the collaborative law process provided – having agreed to proceed, the Solicitor will then explain in more detail the process, principles, the aims and goals of the session/s.
- Preparing for the first four-way meeting – before the meeting, it will be necessary to make several key decisions including whether the meeting should be face to face, or by phone, who will attend and in what capacity, the objectives, a suggested agenda, the venue, and who will take notes.
- Preparation of the anchor statement – this will outline the reasons why the parties have chosen the collaborative law process to resolve their dispute and their hopes and aspirations for the future.
- The first four-way meeting – this will follow the agenda agreed, and if necessary, will set out the structure of future four-way meetings.
- Intermediate four-way meetings – in between the four-way meetings, clients will maintain regular contact with their Solicitor to keep up to date with developments, recap previous sessions, and to plan for future meetings.
- Final four-way meeting – when both parties reach an agreement, a final session will be held to agree on the terms of the settlement. This will confirm the documents needed for the Court (e.g. a consent order, minutes of the agreement, and a joint letter from the Solicitors outlining the process to date and the agreements made), the details of the order, and how the process will be ended.
Collaborative law approaches to family law disputes ensure clients are in control of their matter without the immediate threat of Court proceedings being instigated. While there may be ill feeling, the collaborative process is about stepping back and seeing matters from all angles and then making decisions that are truly in the best interests of all concerned.
After all, where children are involved, you will both always be their parents, regardless of the arrangements that are made when the relationship comes to an end. Therefore, by taking a measured approach now, both parents can maintain a cordial relationship with one another, which will help the children readjust to their new life.
Please note, this article does not constitute legal advice.
Hart Reade Solicitors have offices in Eastbourne, Hailsham, Polegate and Meads. We hold a Lexcel Accreditation from the Law Society of England and Wales and are members of Resolution. To make an appointment with one of our family law solicitors, please phone our office on 01323 727 321.