Western Mail, 6th May 2010
Welsh lawyers are trying a new approach to give separating couples the opportunity to avoid courtroom dramas. Thea Hughes, a partner with Cardiff firm Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice, gives the lowdown on this groundbreaking development

FOR years now, if a couple in Wales needed legal assistance to sort out a problem between them, there has been one main course of action.

Each party would instruct solicitors to fight for their interests, often ending in a court battle which left everyone feeling confrontational and alienated. Many cases do not go as far as court, but even when solicitors thrashed out agreements and settlements between themselves, couples could feel disconnected from the process, or find themselves lacking closure.

Now, thanks to ideas developed in the US and Canada, there is another way.

Called “collaborative law”, this new approach calls for disputing couples or families to work together to resolve their issues. Rather than engaging a solicitor to fight on your behalf, in collaborative law you sit down with your solicitor, your former partner and their solicitor, and commit to sorting it out together, however long it takes.

It’s not like counselling or marriage guidance – the lawyers are there to help you reach a settlement and move on with your lives – but it can make a huge difference to do things this way.

Collaborative law is a whole new way of thinking. It could prove to be a quiet revolution in the way Welsh people think about resolving family legal disputes.

Some lawyers in England have been trialling this service for the past two years. The results have been remarkable – defying sceptics who claimed this approach was too American and couldn’t work in Britain, or who couldn’t believe a couple could reach any kind of agreement just by talking things through. Instead, collaborative lawyers have helped thousands of couples in England deal with their difficulties in a professional and amicable manner.

Now, a group of Welsh lawyers is ready to bring the same service to couples in Wales. This is the start of a new era for people in Wales who want an alternative to the traditional adversarial approach to sorting out family legal problems.

Anyone in Wales can benefit from this new collaborative law option: married couples going through a divorce, unmarried couples dealing with separation, civil partners seeking to dissolve their partnerships, or parents or grandparents trying to formalise contact or residence for children.

No matter what the problem, the collaborative approach remains the same: each party instructs a specially-trained collaborative lawyer, and then everyone sits down together and commits to resolving their differences.

The members of Collaborative Lawyers in Wales are all qualified solicitors with many years’ experience, drawn from a number of top firms across Wales. The difference is that unlike regular solicitors and barristers, collaborative lawyers are also specifically trained in working constructively and compassionately to help couples reach agreement.

Of course, this approach isn’t for everyone. Some separations and divorces are so bitter or messy that there is no chance of both parties agreeing to try to resolve their differences through a collaborative process, let alone that process being able to help them in a constructive way.

Also, although the collaborative approach might appeal to some couples as a more “grown-up” way to deal with disputes, it should not be thought of as the “easy option”. For the collaborative approach to work, both parties need to start out with the right mindset: instead of seeing it as a fight with their former partner, they need to be willing to work together with them to settle their differences. This is clearly not appropriate in every situation, and so some couples might find that collaborative law simply isn’t right for them.

However, if a couple feels the collaborative route might work for them, it can be very effective indeed. Couples in England who have tried doing things this way often report back that they have managed to sort out all of their issues and still successfully remain friends with their former partners; few believed such a result would have been possible with a traditional solicitors’ agreement or court hearing.

This approach has also proven to work extremely well for the children of separating couples, who are spared the difficulty of seeing their parents arguing and can benefit hugely from knowing that their parents are working out their differences together.

I am proud to be one of the pioneers of this new approach here in Wales. Hopefully our ability to provide this service will lead to more Welsh families resolving their differences amicably.