Avoid the stress of chaotic family court system, our expert family lawyer advises

Divorcing and separating couples should make every effort to try Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) options (including mediation, collaboration and arbitration) to avoid their case progressing to court, a top family lawyer at Attwaters Jameson Hill has advised.

Belinda Strange, a Solicitor in our Family Law team, has years of experience in supporting couples through the divorce and separation process. While our family lawyers have extensive expertise in assisting couples through court proceedings, in recent years they have witnessed over and over the stress and heartbreak caused by what has now become an extremely drawn out and protracted process.

Belinda’s comments come just months after Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division, warned that family lawyers are “running flat out up a down escalator”, struggling as they are to cope with an ever-growing backlog of cases reaching court.

“What this means is that couples who choose to take their case to court are facing spiralling delays, leaving them in limbo for months or even years before their separation is finalised,” says Belinda.

She continues, “This prolongs the emotional trauma experienced by separating couples and their families, preventing them from getting their lives back on track. This is why I am such a keen supporter of ADR, as it allows people to resolve their cases more quickly, begin the healing process and finally move on with their lives.”

There are three main avenues that couples can explore if they want to resolve their dispute out of court: mediation, collaboration and arbitration.

“Many people don’t realise that before proceeding to litigation, separating couples are legally obliged to first try mediation,” Belinda says. “This offers them the opportunity to avoid the significant costs associated with court proceedings by working with a trained, independent Mediator with the skills and expertise to facilitate negotiations between both parties. I would strongly urge couples to commit fully to the mediation process, as it can really save a great deal of money and stress.”

While couples who use mediation are assisted by a single Mediator, those who take the collaborative approach each have a legal representative who will sit with them during four-way negotiation meetings. Before commencing, both parties have to agree that they will not take their case to court. “This agreement is reinforced by the fact that, if the couple change their minds and decide to take the litigation route, they will not be able to use the same lawyers as they did during the collaborative process, meaning they would have to start again from scratch,” says Belinda.

Finally, divorcing couples can choose to end their relationship through arbitration. “This is the option that is most similar to court proceedings, but it is conducted in private and is much quicker than the litigation route,” Belinda explains. With this option, the couple appoint an arbitrator whose eventual decision on financial, property or child-related issues is final and legally binding. “The arbitrator acts in the same capacity as a judge, but the benefit of arbitration is the speed, flexibility and privacy it offers.”

Not only are all three options far more cost-effective than court, Belinda concludes, but they allow couples to resolve their differences with the least amount of animosity and conflict. “It’s not only important for the separating couple, but for the wellbeing of children and other family members who inevitably get pulled into the conflict.

“Of course, our entire Family Law team has extensive experience in guiding couples though the court process, and litigation may well be the best route for some. That said, I do believe that ADR really can work for the majority of couples, particularly in the light of the chaos currently reigning in the court system.”

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