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Joshua Rozenberg
Friday 19th February 2010
Why Family Lawyers Should Collaborate

I don't think I could ever be a family lawyer. Their daily diet of human frailty would depress me beyond measure. Yes, I'm sure there is much satisfaction to be gained from helping clients to put their shattered lives back together again. But there must be many more people who never truly recover from the effects of family separation or abuse.

These depressing thoughts were prompted by a morning this week in the High Court Family Division. Each judge of the division does a week of urgent applications, sitting in court during the day and sleeping by the phone at night.

As an "accredited" journalist, I am now allowed to attend hearings in the Family Division. I am not permitted access to the court papers so it is rather difficult to know what is going on. On the other hand, I am not allowed to report most of what I see or hear so perhaps the detail contained in these papers would not be of much use to me.

Exactly what I can report is far from clear. I don't think even the judges know. But I suspect that I will not be in contempt of Mrs Justice Barron if I comment that she handled her caseload with tact, sensitivity and an extraordinarily practical attention to detail. She knew how to make the system work and she was determined to ensure that justice was done. Perhaps all family judges are as practical as she is; I shall have to go back and watch another judge at work.

A few hours later, I went to meet another very practical lawyer. Gillian Bishop, whose law firm is called Family Law in Partnership, has written a 44-page booklet called A Client's Guide to Collaborative Divorce. Single copies cost £5 and it's well worth a read by anyone contemplating divorce or separation.

Collaborative divorce is a process developed by lawyers in Minnesota a few years ago under which couples commit themselves to resolving disputes over money and children between themselves without asking the courts to intervene. This is not conciliation or reconciliation; it doesn't bring couples back together again. But for those who try the collaborative approach, it seems to work in 85% of the cases.

Instead of writing aggressive letters to each other, collaborative lawyers and their clients meet across the table. These four-way meetings - two lawyers, two parties - are at the heart of the collaborative process. And there's a great incentive to do a deal: if it fails and the couple have to go to court, both lawyers must pull out and the clients have to start again from scratch.

If you want to know why lawyers are prepared to risk losing their clients, read the book.

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About Joshua Rozenberg

Joshua Rozenberg is an independent legal commentator who presents Law in Action on BBC Radio 4.

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