An interview with Samantha Woodham – the Co-Founder of the Divorce Surgery.

1. Hi Samantha. Firstly, congratulations for having your new business shortlisted for the Legal Week Client Management Innovation Award!

S: Thank you! We are absolutely delighted to be nominated, particularly given that the other firms on the shortlist are such big, established corporates. When Harry and I set up The Divorce Surgery we felt it was truly innovative and had the potential to transform completely the way legal advice is given on divorce. The business has only formally been up and running since last year, so it’s fantastic to get recognition so quickly.

2. What’s different about the Divorce Surgery?

S: Before we came along separating couples were unable to get legal advice together from practising, regulated lawyers. The reason for that is because solicitors cannot advise a couple together due to their conflict rules. But barristers can! I am a family law barrister myself and once I discovered that barristers can provide impartial legal advice to couples together, I knew it was a service which had to be made available. We call it One Couple One Lawyer. It isn’t new: this is a service which is available in many other European countries, where joint advice is the default, rather than the adversarial system we have in this country.

The benefits to couples are huge. Divorce is a shared problem. Most couples start out wanting to reach a fair agreement with regards to the division of their finances and the arrangements for their children, but often they have very different perceptions of what fair is. Crucially, they also won’t know what a Court would consider fair in their particular circumstances, which is vital because at the end of the day a Judge will have to approve any settlement reached as being fair before it is made into a legally binding Court Order. So the sooner the couple knows what a Court would consider fair the sooner they can negotiate constructively and reach a fair deal. Until we arrived, if a couple wanted legal advice they would each have to instruct separate solicitors. This can be a real impediment to direct communication between the couple, and obviously increases cost. Our barristers are completely impartial and advise the couple together, so there is complete transparency about the advice being given.

We enable couples to start their divorce as they mean to go on, being open and constructive.

3. What’s the social impact of couples getting legal advice together?

S: For the couple our service minimises conflict, because we enable couples to get legal advice together. For that reason it is not the right service for every couple, and we screen clients individually first to ensure they are suitable (for instance checking there are no allegations of abuse or hidden assets). But the majority of couples are suitable. Reducing conflict has huge benefits, not only for the couple and their mental health, but also the emotional wellbeing of their children, family and friends. Because the advice is given by one impartial barrister, any power imbalances are neutralised. The couple are each on a par. The barrister advising them will have no further role in their divorce after the advice is given, so the couple can have total confidence in their impartiality.

Most couples want the legal advice they receive to be expert and efficient. Clients are increasingly losing patience with open ended fees charged on an hourly rate. We have streamlined the process so that we can offer couples high level expertise with a specialist barrister (including at Silk level if required) but we do so for a fixed fee, which the clients are told at the start before they commit. It’s the injection of detailed legal advice they need at the very start when they need it most, enabling clients, we feel, to get real value for money.

In terms of the wider benefits for society, enabling couples to resolve their divorce together with the least possible conflict but still with the legal advice they undoubtedly need has huge benefits. The statistics on divorce and mental health are shocking: a divorce can take twice as long to recover from than a close bereavement. 42% of marriages end in divorce: we need, as a society, to deal with them much better than we have been. The Courts should be reserved for the most serious cases. Sadly this is far from the truth, and Courts up and down the country are at breaking point. I was horrified to read the latest research from the Nuffield Foundation that a third of all separating couples end up in Court over the arrangements for their children (we had previously thought it was a tenth). That is a shocking statistic. Court proceedings hugely increase conflict for families which, in turn, can cause emotional harm to children. It cannot be right that a third of all separating couples require Court intervention, and I sincerely hope that the One Couple One Lawyer service can be part of the solution. At the end of a court process, when all the lawyers have gone away, a divorced couple has to start talking and communicating on a practical level. We are inviting couples to start as they mean to continue.

The Divorce Surgery is a responsible business, and our work is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including ‘good health and well-being’ (due to decreased conflict), ‘gender equality’ (due to decreased power imbalance), and ‘peace and justice’ - we donate 1% of profits to access to justice charities.

4. How are you hoping to change the system for couples getting divorced?

S: We are currently the only service in the country to offer joint impartial advice to couples. We believe this is a service which should be available to all families. We widely promote not only our service but all services which enable separating couples to get early expert legal advice, which we believe is crucial to successful separations.

We were invited by the Ministry of Justice to their consultation on no-fault divorce, and have met with Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum promoting the need for early legal advice for separating families. We also submitted evidence on the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

We will do everything we can to raise awareness of One Couple One Lawyer service and work with lawmakers and policy makers wherever we can to make this joint service part of the fabric of Family Justice.

5. How can you help responsible businesses support their colleagues through divorce?

S: We have actually been approached by HR departments of large corporates who want to do more for their employees on divorce. Only 10% of employees think their employers do enough to support them during family breakdown, so there is huge room for improvement there. Our service is a way of setting couples off down the right path at the earliest stage, and we also help corporates in reviewing their policies on divorce and family breakdown and ensuring their employees have all the resources and support they might need when the time comes.

Thank you very much Samantha!