Monday, 19 August 2013

Marriage: the costs of entry and exit, and how a good lawyer represents value for money

Today's blog comes from guestblogger Margaret Heathcote.  Follow Margaret on Twitter @Auntie_Ag

Marriages is very “in” at the moment.  Most of you will know of someone who has recently married, or is about to do so.  You will also know of someone who has had a ludicrously elaborate, and no doubt expensive, stag or hen night / weekend / week (although an examination of that strange phenomenon must wait for another day).

According to, the average cost of a wedding in the UK (inclusive of honeymoon) in 2013 is expected to be over £16,000.

The magnitude of that is staggering - £16,000 represents (among other things):

·                     a 10% deposit on a property costing £160,000 (the average UK house costing just over £163,000 according to the Halifax House Price Index in December 2012)

·                     the cost of a new Mini One Hatchback

·                     more than the cost of an LPC course at the College of Law (now the University of Law – what’s all that about?), and

·                     more than 50 hours of a solicitor’s time charged at £250 per hour, inclusive of VAT.

However, the government does not legislate for how much people can spend on their weddings – it is an entirely personal choice, and (coincidentally) very lucrative for those in the business.  According to Hitched, the UK wedding industry was worth about £10 billion in 2012.

It is infinitely easier for most people (this is neither the time nor place to unpack the crooked path that will finally next year lead to a degree of marriage equality) to get married than to get divorced.  However, if you look at the issue of divorce through the reductionist lenses that government Ministers seem to have surgically fitted, it would appear significantly cheaper to get divorced than married. 

A solicitor in central London will charge between £750 and £1,000 plus VAT to advise on and process an undefended divorce petition.  For that fee, they will: 

·                     take instructions on the particulars of the ground of the Petition;
·                     incorporate those into the paperwork;
·                     draft a Statement of Arrangements in relation to any children;
·                     arrange for the Petition to be issued and served on the other party
·                     on receipt of an acknowledgement of Service, prepare an application for decree nisi;
·                     lodge that with the Court;
·                     in due course apply for decree nisi, and
·                     (ultimately) apply for decree absolute. 

The process is not difficult, but it is vital it is completed correctly. 

The Court will charge a fee of £410 to issue the petition, an administrative process which takes (at most) ten minutes of a Clerical Officer’s time.  Let us assume that for that fee the Court also processes the acknowledgement of service (about ten minutes work), the application for decree nisi (ten minutes) and the District Judge’s certificate (another ten minutes).  That’s a total of around 40 minutes work by a civil servant with an -ology or two for £410; equating to an hourly rate of £512.50 per hour excluding VAT – not bad work if you can get it! 

The Court will then charge a further fee of £45 to process an application for decree absolute – again, ten minutes work at most, equating to an hourly rate of £225 per hour (excluding VAT).  As above, a pretty nice way to make a living.  It is no small irony that it costs the same to register a marriage.

In case readers assume that these fees are pocketed by the Court staff, let me address that now:  administrative Court staff are paid nothing comparable to this.  Their salaries are, in fact pitiful, starting at about £12,000 gross per annum (although in London there is some London Weighting applied), or around £6.50 an hour.

When we read in the press of the “quickie divorce” (an expression that makes me cringe), we are of course reading about the dissolution of a couple’s marriage or, more accurately, pronouncement of decree nisi only.  We were told that Nigella Lawson’s marriage was dissolved in 70 seconds.  A District Judge of my acquaintance told me that her own personal record for pronouncement of decrees nisi for the day was 48 seconds.  So it’s quicker than getting married, too.

Hey presto!  The couple are divorced.  Easy peasy…

For most people, however, there are other issues to be resolved alongside the divorce itself that arise in the context of marriage breakdown:  financial matters and / or arrangements for children.  In respect of both, the government would like to compel people to resolve these through mediation.  The government’s attitude appears to be that divorcing couples must stop jamming up the (very costly) Courts with their time consuming and petty squabbles.  Petty to the government, perhaps, but not to those whose lives they affect.    

Funnily enough, most family lawyers (and certainly those who, like me, are members of Resolution) encourage their clients to resolve matters by agreement (whether through mediation or otherwise) rather than litigate at huge expense (both emotional and economic).  But for some, solutions outside of the court process are just not achievable.  An independent referee whose decision is binding – in other words, a Judge – is needed.

For every stubborn client who holds out on a financial agreement as a matter of principle (if I had a penny for every time….), there are at least as many others who cannot agree to what is proposed because they it is insufficient to support themselves or their children.  They need a Judge to apply the law and require their partner to make financial provision at a level that is both fair and reasonable, precisely because that partner is not inclined to be either of those things. 

Likewise, for every awkward parent who refuses to allow Little Tarquin to be collected by his father at 3:45pm rather than 3:30pm (God give me strength, but these arguments still arise), there are as many others who would not be seeing Little Tarquin at all if it were not for the ability of a family Judge to compel the recalcitrant parent. 

People are not always reasonable when it comes to divorce.  It is rarely possible for them to deal with the breakdown of their relationship with unemotional robotic detachment.  Even politicians and / or their partners have been known to act a little bizarrely at such times (remember the MP’s wife creeping into his mistress’s garden and stealing her cat?), and the process of achieving a separation is not simply the relatively simple administrative divorce process described above.  Advising people in respect of these issues requires training and experience.  It is a service that the public at large want to be able to access.  It is a service they value when they need it.

Research shows that 83% of people contemplating divorce think that they need the assistance of a solicitor.   Most of those people would be able, with some simple guidance ( is an excellent new package that provides just this) to achieve a decree absolute without a lawyer being involved.  However, very few would be able to negotiate the complexities of a financial dispute or serious issue in relation to their children without consulting a solicitor at some point.    

Legal advice on divorce is a crisis purchase.  Unlike a wedding, it is difficult to fund through borrowing.  However, like most crises, it is something which can be mitigated by seeking the help of an expert in crisis management.  Whether the government likes to acknowledge it or not, lawyers remain the recognised and trusted experts in divorce crisis management. 

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