Delighted to post this Guest Blog from Gillian Bishop at Family Law in Partnership writing this for us.

I recently bumped into a former client whom I had represented in a collaborative divorce a few years ago.  Over the course of working with him I had got to know him and his then wife quite well.  I was pleased to see him and asked how things were. This was his reply:

We are still very happily “not-married” and see each other all the time, spending weekends and holidays together and always celebrating everything as a family.

I have no doubt that the collaborative process was instrumental in the success of our divorce.  It left both us and our children feeling calm and reassured that we as parents had done the right thing.”

“Wow!”  I thought. It has not been often in my 30 years as a family law solicitor that I have heard such positive follow up and I wonder how many of your divorcing friends have been able to say this sort of thing.   I am pleased to say that I have heard it increasingly after working collaboratively with couples.

I was reminded of the occasion last year when I walked back to my Covent Garden office from the last collaborative 4-way meeting with my client’s soon to be ex-wife who was en route to the mainline train station. We chatted about the children and upcoming holidays. When we reached my office she paused before continuing to the train. Instinctively, she hugged me and said how grateful she was for my help in getting things resolved with her husband.  I had to pinch myself to remember that she was not my client and that in the eyes of some ex-wives of my litigation clients I would have been regarded as Public Enemy No.1.

So what is collaborative family law and what makes it different from the conventional, some might say “traditional”, approach to dispute resolution?

 Collaborative law is the process in which you and your partner and both your lawyers sign up to a commitment to resolving matters between you without involving the court. It is the “no court” commitment which offers the prospect of delivering a solution for the long term benefit of you and your family.

How is this achieved?

Aspiration statements

The aspiration statements of each couple are delivered to each other – some are prepared jointly – at the commencement of the collaborative process. They are statements of the couple’s highest hopes for the process and their family’s post separation life. They usually address two aspects: a) the way the process is conducted and b) what the outcome should enable each of the couple and the family as a whole to do/have. In times of difficulty the aspiration, or anchor, statements are there to help stabilise the situation as they remind couples of why they want to work together in this way and of the things that matter most to them.

Disqualification clause

Everyone signs a participation agreement not to go to court.

If the process breaks down the lawyers will withdraw from representing either party. 

Some people view this disqualification clause with fear and regard it as a reason not to collaborate. In fact the clause is a real positive for the process and is why people should feel safe entering into a collaborative way of working. It is what makes the process work. It works because not finding a solution round the table brings with it consequences no one wants.  This in turn enables the participants to start getting creative about, and focused on, finding solutions that, if they are not found round the table, will be found months later by a complete stranger – the judge – with limited knowledge of the couple and no knowledge of what really matters to them.

More importantly the disqualification clause gives a freedom to the lawyers to work together rather than in opposition to each other, it fosters interest based negotiation (e.g. what do we need to do with our assets?)  rather than the more adversarial positional negotiation (e.g. how much of the money can I keep for me?) , it enables an atmosphere of trust to be built up between the clients and both lawyers, and, perhaps most importantly of all, it enables the couple to address underlying concerns and issues which in turn permits a deeper healing to take place. Without the disqualification clause it is very easy for people to become polarised, for minor issues to become major ones and for resentments and bitterness to take hold.

It works!

The father in my first collaborative case said at the end of the process “my family, though separated, is still intact”. His words have inspired me to work collaboratively whenever possible ever since.

If you want to know more about the collaborative process and how it has helped other families then read “The Client’s Guide to Collaborative divorce – putting your family first” available from my firm’s website or on Kindle via Amazon .